I've read every book that Tracy Chevalier has written and have been rarely disappointed. This telling of the making of the Brussels tapestries by the family of Georges de La Chapelle, master lissier (weaver) is a fast-paced story of the production of the first 'unicorn tapestries' that became fashionable at the end of the 15th century.
The novel revolves around the production of a series of tapestries that tell the tale of the seduction of a unicorn by a noblewoman. Magical and elusive, the woman uses her wiles to appeal to the senses of the unicorn to draw him ever closer to her, to lure his trust and adoration until she can capture him by grasping onto his horn. Of course, the symbolism can be debated. Is this a story of sexual politics or is this a story of a more spiritual nature? Chevalier weaves both aspects of theory into her story.
The novel is structured in such a way that each chapter is told from a different character's perspective. There is the artist who is commissioned to create the images for the tapestries. He is a sought after artist at the court of the French king because of his talent for making miniatures of the noblewomen. He is also a notorious womanizer who thinks of very little other than sex and satisfying his flirtatious libido. There are his conquests from kitchen maids to the young, nubile daughter of his rich patron. There is the religious wife of his patron who would like nothing more than to retreat from an unsatisfying marriage to the local convent to spend her life in prayer and seclusion. There is the stressed weaver in Brussels who must produce this new and novel set of tapestries under a strict timeline. There is his stalwart wife who would like nothing more than to be able to openly contribute to the weaving process in the guild shop of her husband, but who is forbidden to weave because of the rules of the weavers guild. There is the quiet daughter of the weaver who is to be married off to a smelly boorish woad-dyer who lusts after her and has a stranglehold on the weaver because of his ability to supply the precious blue wool that is so much in demand within the tapestry weaving trade. And finally, there is the quiet patient artist who paints the cartoons (the patterns that are attached to the looms) who is deeply in love with the weaver's daughter ... sigh.
This is a great story ... a little romance, a little raunch, a lot of art history, a rollicking story about social classes, and parallel stories about unrequited love. I always look forward to Tracy Chevalier's novels and I will continue to do so.