Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Kate Forsyth is serious about fairy tales.

The author of several series of magic-infused children's books, she's also in the midst of earning a doctorate in fairy tale retellings. But there is nothing academic or plodding about her marvelous adult historical fantasy, Bitter Greens.

To call it a mere retelling of Rapunzel does not even begin to do justice to this ambitious, absorbing, and imaginative novel.

When I was writing Alias Hook, I didn't realize that the retold fairy tale had become a genre unto itself. I just became so obsessed with the character of James Hook, notorious villain of the Neverland, that I knew I had to tell his story in his own voice.

It seems that Forsyth's book had a similar genesis—her fascination with formidable Frenchwoman Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a real-life writer at the court of Louis XIV who set down one of the earliest versions of the Rapunzel tale in 1697.

Indeed, Charlotte-Rose is a lively and irresistible protagonist, as imagined by Forsyth. But hers is only one of three distinct stories of three dynamic women that span two hundred years of European history in the course of the novel.

Their stories are  braided together as intricately as the strands in Rapunzel's rope of red-gold hair.

One protagonist is Margherita, daughter of a mask-maker in Renaissance Venice. At age 12, she's stolen from her parents and imprisoned alone in an impregnable tower by the hundred-year-old witch, La Strega, who uses the girl's virginal blood in black magic rituals to preserve her eternal beauty.

Another protagonist is, of course, Charlotte-Rose herself, who will ultimately write the story in French as Persinette.
A portrait of Charlotte-Rose—I hope!

 (This title, meaning "Little Parsley," refers to the Faustian bargain by which the girl's parents are lured by the witch into staking their daughter's future on a handful of bitter greens.)

Charlotte-Rose's fierce wit and scandalous romances make for compelling reading; the minute she is banished from court and incarcerated in a nunnery in the first chapter, divested of her fancy clothes, her hair, and—quelle horreur!—her writing implements, I was completely hooked!

And, perhaps most unexpectedly, Forsyth's third protagonist is La Strega herself, Selena Leonelli. Daughter of a prostitute mother brutally assaulted before her eyes, apprenticed to a witch, ageless courtesan and dangerous sorceress, she's determined to make the world pay for the injustices done to her.

While none of these women qualifies as the popular modern cliché of the "kick-ass heroine," each is wily, independent, and courageous in her own way. And each of them is worthy of redemption.

Indeed, how the tale of Persinette is revealed to Charlotte-Rose is one of the most satisfying strands in Forsyth's grand design.

Forsyth's prose is gorgeous, her storytelling layered and complex in this splendid, magical feast of a book.

* * *

The cool thing about fairy tales is how open they are to interpretations, by diverse artists as well as writers. Look at these visions of Rapunzel I found! The Arts and Crafts-era illustration (top right) was done by Heinrich Lefler, ca. 1905. Lower right is a lovely painting from a book of Grimms Fairy Tales by F. W. Darlington, ca. 1930s or 40s.

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