Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
ARC, Kindle, 496 pages
Thomas Dunne Books
September 23, 2014
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fairytale Retold
Source: Received from publisher for review with HFVBT Tour
“An utterly captivating reinvention of the Rapunzel fairytale weaved together with the scandalous life of one of the tale's first tellers, Charlotte-Rose de la Force.
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. 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...
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, sixty-four years later. Called La Strega Bella, Selena is at the centre of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition, retaining her youth and beauty by the blood of young red-haired girls.
After Margherita's father steals a handful of parsley, wintercress and rapunzel from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off unless he and his wife give away their little red-haired girl. And so, when she turns seven, Margherita is locked away in a tower, her hair woven together with the locks of all the girls before her, growing to womanhood under the shadow of La Strega Bella, and dreaming of being rescued...
Three women, three lives, three stories, braided together to create a compelling story of desire, obsession, black magic and the redemptive power of love.”
I remembered hearing about Bitter Greens when it first came out in Australia a year or so ago. I was super excited to read this book when it came out to US release merely for the fact of the retelling of Rapunzel within a real historical setting. I honestly had not read the book blurb so I didn’t realize until I was well into the book, that Charlotte-Rose de La Force was the writer of one of the Rapunzel versions – leave it to me to completely miss the obvious! The pieces did appear to come together though, so even if you had no idea, you would end up getting the idea. In some ways I got what I was expecting of this novel, and in other ways I didn’t.
I consider the story as three threads composing two stories – that of Rapunzel (to include the back story behind the witch) and the story of Charlotte-Rose (the writer). I liked each of these stories separately, but didn’t love them told together – although I did like the idea of intertwining them together to show how the fairytale writer may have arrived at the concept for the story.
I loved Charlotte-Rose’s story – her saga among the court of the Sun King and even her life at the convent (and longtime readers of this blog know that I haven’t historically been a huge fan of novels set in convents). It was compelling and absolutely oozed the French court.
At the same time, I thought Forsyth did a FANTASTIC job retelling Rapunzel in a realistic historical setting (whether her name is Rapunzel, Margherita, Persinette or Petrosinella). The characters were fully fleshed out – especially Rapunzel’s savior/lover who you never quite know much about in the fairytale. I truly felt her desolation and loneliness being shut away in the tower. I acutally even felt bad for La Strega (the witch) upon being given a compelling backstory.
The stretch for me was in the way the revelation of the story of Rapunzel came to Charlotte-Rose. Even though I arrived at the conclusion before the character did (and remember, I didn’t know she was the writer of the tale), it didn’t feel satisfying or natural to me. It was a little too much of a stretch of make the story of Rapunzel fit into her life experiences.
My only other critique was how dense the novel felt while reading it. No matter how long I read, I never seemed to make any forward progress. This almost 500 page novel took me a hell of a lot longer to read than it should have. I learned a lot about the time, experienced a lot of story, but could only read a few pages at a time without feeling overwhelmed and ready to put the book down. While the atmospheric nature was one of the things I loved about this book, I think its extent made it one of the more difficult aspects as well.
Kate Forsyth has written many other novels, including The Wild Girl. You can visit Forsyth’s website or blog for additional information about the book. If you would like to preview the story before reading it, why not try out this excerpt of the book?
You can also watch the book trailer below.
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