Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens (2012)
We tend to think of the tellers of fairy tales as anonymous, their personalities smoothed out and obscured by time, details of their lives irrelevant to the archetypal stories that have come down to us. But in fact the tellers and writers of these familiar tales were often real, individual women, who were known by name to the male collectors and anthologizers who took over their work and put their own stamp on it. The erasure of this female literary history is an injustice that has yet to be corrected.
In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth brings to light — in decidedly fictional, quasi-fantasy form — the story of one of these creators, the French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who set down the tale we now know as “Rapunzel.” She wasn’t the first or the last to do so, but she introduced important elements that we now take as essential to the story, including the healing of the blinded prince. In layers of tales within tales, Forsyth brings us into Charlotte-Rose’s glittering and precarious world, the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, then moves into stories of a century and more earlier, of a Venetian girl captured against her will, and of the witch whose revelation of her own dark history gives us insight into the origins of this tragedy and the elements of its redemption.
It’s a complex narrative to construct, and Forsyth does it well. She builds up her historical settings in rich and convincing detail, making us see and feel with the three women at their center. Only at the end does she falter a bit, in a rather hasty resolution that had less ambiguity than I personally would have preferred. But this didn’t diminish my pleasure in the book as a whole, or my interest in the fascinating, forgotten character of Charlotte-Rose herself. She illuminates much about the plight of women denied a way to express themselves other than through sexual means, and amazes us with the strength of her drive toward freedom. For all girls and women who are still locked in the tower of their own fears and uncertainties, she can be an inspiration.
I’m counting Bitter Greens for the “Fairy Tale” category of the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.
Paperback release date: May 19 from St. Martin’s Griffin