January 18, 2016

Bitter Greens: A Panoramic Review (Adult)

16595208"A Library Journal Best Book of 2014: Historical Fiction

The amazing power and truth of the Rapunzel fairy tale comes alive for the first time in this breathtaking tale of desire, black magic and the redemptive power of love

French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens...

After Margherita's father steals parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.

Locked away in a tower, Margherita sings in the hope that someone will hear her. One day, a young man does.

Award-winning author Kate Forsyth braids together the stories of Margherita, Selena, and Charlotte-Rose, the woman who penned Rapunzel as we now know it, to create what is a sumptuous historical novel, an enchanting fairy tale retelling, and a loving tribute to the imagination of one remarkable woman.
" (from Goodreads)
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

My reaction: I really enjoyed this one. This is essentially the Rapunzel fairytale embedded within the narrative of the writer, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, who is telling how she came to hear the story of Rapunzel (and Charlotte-Rose really is one of the authors of the versions of Rapunzel we know today). I definitely found the Rapunzel portion more interesting overall; the writer Charlotte-Rose's story involved a lot of gossip in the Sun King's court and trying to keep track of so many people who are related to each other in various ways (which I mostly failed at). A list of characters to refer to would have been very helpful!

Best aspect: the way the writing transports the reader into the historical setting. The portrayal of 17th-century French society feels very real — the fashions, the behaviour. It was quite educational, too, learning about what it was like to live in the Sun King's court, and about the persecution of Huguenots that happened at that time. (And also a little eye-opening to discover how much time the Sun King spent in...amorous relations with his mistresses. When he wasn't banishing Huguenots or shutting them up in nunneries, of course.) 

On the fairytale side of things, I very much appreciated getting the POV not just of the Rapunzel character, but also a snippet of her mother's story, as well as a richly developed backstory for the Mother Gothel character. 
If I could change something... I'd explain a few of the plot points better. There were some that just seemed too convenient, brushed off with a half-hearted attempt at explanation that didn't satisfy me (spoilers, highlight to read: like when Margherita could suddenly perform magic, explained away because she prayed to the Goddess, and so conveniently snoods were turning into nets and what have you) or stretching the bounds of credulity until they snapped (spoilers: Margherita not realizing she was pregnant — with TWINS — until she was giving birth??? Seriously? And the witch didn't realize either???). 

There was also a central element in the original Rapunzel tale (spoiler: Rapunzel's healing tears) that became almost an afterthought in this retelling, and I didn't like the way that it was done here. Maybe the author was trying to turn this element into something more realistic, but it just ended up making both Margherita, and especially Lucio, look foolish. Spoilers: his eyes were dried shut with blood, so he thought he was blind, and so did Margherita when she saw him (but really he just needed to wet his eyes so that he could open them again). I mean... huh?

If you haven't read it: and you're looking for a mature, dark, historical take on Rapunzel, you're going to want to read Bitter Greens.  

If you have read it: what did you think of the reveal at the end? I wasn't surprised since it had crossed my mind, but I still liked it because it made sense in connecting the narratives together. I also enjoyed the allusion to another version of Rapunzel and its author, and how Forsyth fit that into her retelling. 

Just one more thing I wanted to mention: I thought one of the ending scenes — what really should have been a higher-tension moment — fell short. In particular, I just didn't buy the change that happened in a certain character; it happened too quickly and without (to my mind) sufficient motivation. Spoilers: Selena suddenly repents, and I wish we had seen this from her perspective; it would've helped to have been inside her head, because as it was, I didn't understand what was triggering this apparent change of heart, and so I had a hard time believing it was genuine. Not to mention, Margherita and Lucio let her go and blithely expected she wouldn't do any more nasty stuff (without any guarantee), which hardly seems smart. 

Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. A captivating, engrossing retelling and expansion of the Rapunzel tale that made it feel very real to me. In particular, I thought it was a neat premise to go about giving a possible explanation for the mystery of how a particular writer came to pen the fairytale that we all know so well (or at least, think we do...). 

I'm definitely going to be looking into other books by Kate Forsyth! (In particular, she has written a Beauty & the Beast retelling. I know I'm going to try to get my hands on that one!) 

Note: this is an adult novel, and contains mature content (including explicit sexual and violent content). 

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