REVIEW: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling)

by |March 26, 2012

So fairytales are pretty hot right now. If that seems like a ridiculous sentence, consider the fact that we have not one, but two “Snow White” movies set to hit the big screen this year. It seems like all of a sudden the world had gone bonkers for stories about fairytale princesses living happily ever after.

I blame Kate Middleton.

Still, having suffered from a pretty serious fairytale addiction my whole life, I’m not about to start complaining. I have always been pretty keen on fairytales. The “fairytale retelling” is one of my favourite sub-genres. So to say that I was pretty keen to read Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens would be something of an understatement. If I had to choose between winning the lottery or discovering that one of my favourite fantasy authors has written a fairytale re-telling… err… I’d take the cash thanks, obviously. But the point is, it wouldn’t be an easy a decision for me. I would probably have to think about it for at least thirty whole seconds before I made up my mind.

That’s how much of a sucker I am for fairytale retellings.

Kate Forsyth has had my loyalty since I was in high school and got hooked on the The Witches of Eileanan series. When I heard that her new book, Bitter Greens, was a reworking of the Rapunzel fairytale, I fully expected that I would love it. What I didn’t expect was that it would surprise me. How could it? Fairytale retellings are many things. Enchanting, heart-warming, romantic or (in my case) dangerously addictive. But they are very rarely surprising. After all, any passing six-year-old could give you a pretty accurate account of what happens to Rapunzel. We all know how the story goes (in case your memory needs jogging it begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with “Happily ever after”). But when it comes to fairytale retellings it’s not so much about what happens in the story, it’s how the story is told. And in the case of Bitter Greens it’s even more than that.

This isn’t just a simple retelling. This is the story behind the story of Rapunzel, as well as the story within the story of Rapunzel. On the one hand, it is a richly imagined reworking of a familiar fairytale. On the other, it is a meticulously researched biography disguised as historical fiction. It’s a story spanning two centuries and weaving together the lives of three women. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year (tied for first place with Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child – another fairytale retelling. I wasn’t kidding about my fairytale addiction. It’s a serious problem.)(see my review)

Bitter Greens begins in 17th century France with Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a headstrong and charismatic woman whose scandalous behaviour has landed her in trouble. Banished from court by King Louis XIV, she is made to enter a convent. Forced to chop off her hair and exchange her silken finery for a heavy black dress, to trade dancing and merriment for drudgery and confinement, Charlotte-Rose is (with very good reason) Not Happy.

I could wax lyrical about Charlotte-Rose for days on end. Suffice to say that as soon as I finished Bitter Greens I jumped online to hunt down biographies about her. This is a woman ahead of her time in nearly every way. She is bold and adventurous, witty and passionate, talented and fascinating and… well… just basically awesome. So awesome that it got her packed off to a nunnery. Enough said.

Upon arriving at the convent, Charlotte-Rose is befriended by a kindly old nun who tells her the story of a young girl locked away in a tower. The young girl is Margherita AKA “Rapunzel”. Here we have all the elements of the familiar fairytale but told in a very compelling and realistic way. Like in all fairytales, there is magic involved. But it is an artful and believable brand of magic, so subtle as to almost escape notice. And naturally there is also a swoon-worthy romance, the kind of fairytale romance that must overcome countless obstacles before you get to the “happily ever after”.

The third storyline follows the life of Selena Leonelli (otherwise known as the evil sorceress who locks Rapunzel in the tower). Selena’s story takes place in the sumptuous and seductive world of Renaissance Venice. Selena is a renowned beauty, muse to the famous artist Tiziano. Though she is the villain of the tale, she is not your typical “wicked witch” and is actually a surprisingly complicated and sympathetic character.

The stories of Charlotte-Rose, Margherita and Selena are skilfully woven together to create a captivating blend of history and fantasy. Highly recommended for fans of Philippa Gregory and Juliet MarillierBitter Greens is a tale of romance and intrigue, seduction and superstition, obsession and betrayal and… I could keep going forever. This book really has a little bit of everything and more besides. It’s a fairytale for grown-ups, a lavish three-course meal for the imagination.

And for those of you who think they don’t have time for fairytales? Those who believe they’ve heard it all before and don’t need to hear it again? Well, you’re partially correct. The Old Testament tells us there is nothing new under the sun and that was written in 300 BC. So yes. Rapunzel is an old story. You have almost certainly heard it before. But trust me, you’ve never heard it told quite like this.

Guest Reviewer: Booktopia’s Sarah McDuling

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