Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: Bitter Greens.

Well, I’ve finally done it!  I’ve finally caught up enough with my prose reading to get to read Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth.
This is my library book, there are many like it but this one is mine!
This book has had the attention of the fairy tale fan community for a while now.  It’s only just now that I’ve managed to get through all the other half-started, half-finished and otherwise looming books on my shelf to get to read this.

Ms. Kate Forsyth herself.
What Australian author Kate Forsyth has done is combine historical fiction with fairy tale retelling.  The story tells the tale of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force who has been exiled from the court of Versailles by King Louis XIV.  Despite growing up a Huguenot, she’s forced to take refuge at a Catholic nunnery where she’s separated from the life and wealth she’s come to rely on.  While staying there, she makes the acquaintance of Soeur Seraphina, a nun who tells her a remarkable story about a young girl named Margherita and Selena Leonelli, the witch who locks her in a tower with no door or stairs.

For those not in the know, Charlotte-Rose de la Force is one of the many writers who has written the story that has come to be known as “Rapunzel” today.  The earliest version was “Petrosinella” written by Giambatista Basile.  Then came Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s “Persinette” and finally the Grimms’ “Rapunzel”.  Forsyth manages to weave the tale and her own historical tale about Charlotte-Rose de la Force into one book that focuses on the different forms of imprisonment someone can find themselves in.  Margherita is locked in a tower and before that an orphanage run by nuns.  Charlotte-Rose is  trapped in a nunnery, but there were also times when the conventions of court life held her captive.  Even the witch is trapped in a way, though it’s mostly in a prison of her own making.  However, as is the case with the “Rapunzel” story, it’s not just a story about imprisonment but about how love can set us free.

King Louis XIV
The book is well-written.  The structure of it jumps backwards and forwards in time a little bit.  I will admit that I was often a little more interested in Margherita’s or Selena Leonelli’s stories than in Charlotte-Rose’s story.  However, that’s probably more indicative of my own tastes as a perpetual fairy tale reader than an indication of anything wrong with the book.  Now, I have to make this clear: this is definitely a book for grown-ups.  There are various racy parts throughout the story as Charlotte-Rose’s various love affairs are detailed.  The curtain also isn’t really pulled on what Margherita and her “Prince” are doing up in that tower.  In fact, there are a couple scenes where I kind of felt like I could use a cold shower afterward.  So, I’d think twice before recommending this book to your mom, your teenage daughter or the wife of your local pastor.

One of the things I found interesting in the book is one of the central themes that appears in Forsyth’s rendering of Margherita/Petrosinella/Persinette as well as various other retellings of Rapunzel.  In almost every retelling of this story I know, there’s this idea that in some way the witch is trying to stop the march of time.  In some cases, it’s only that she’s trying to stop the flow of time for her erstwhile prisoner and in other cases she’s also trying to do it for herself.  This makes sense when you realize that in most old written versions of this story, Rapunzel/Persinette/Petrosinella is imprisoned at the age of twelve.  This means that she’s locked up right at the beginning of her adolescence.  It’s like the witch is trying to keep her from going out into the world and interacting with it as an adult.  It’s reminiscent of the part in Into the Woods when the witch tells Rapunzel “stay a child while you can stay a child”.  Some adaptations also add a more self-serving aspect by having the witch try to stop time for herself as well.  Disney’s Tangled took this route by having Mother Gothel use Rapunzel to stay young.  I don’t want to give too much away, but Selena Leonelli has a similar plan in mind for Margherita.  It’s  just a more sanguinary approach that involves less singing and magic, glowing hair.
One of many Rapunzel illustrations out there.
Bitter Greens is a solid novel.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll probably like it.  If you like fairy tale retellings, you’ll probably like it.  If you like both, then boy are you in luck.  These days it seems like we’ve seen any number of other genres fused with fairy tales, so it’s nice to see another added to the list.  By now, you can probably tell if this book interests you or not.  However, I’d like to finish by giving you a few links.  First is Kate Forsyth’s blog which can be found HERE.  Next is the text of Basile’s “Petrosinella” which can be found HERE.  Sadly, Mlle. De la Force’s “Persinette” does not seem to be on the internet.  Not even the reliable D.L. Ashliman seems able to help me here.  I’m going to have to leave you to find that one on your own.

Anyway, until next time, this is the Fairy Tale Geek signing off.


  1. Looks like Amazon has Kindle versions of Persinette by de la Force for a dollar. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=persinette%20de%20la%20force

  2. Dear me, "don't show this to your maiden aunt" stuff! Don't worry. I've read the book. It's not a children's book, no, but I reckon that far worse has been happening in YA fiction for a while now and as a teacher librarian I can think of some of our older students with good reading skills who would like it. As for your mother, she is an adult and quite capable of reading a book for adults, I'm sure. Of course, I don't know your mother, but anyone who is capable of raising a family is capable of reading a historical fantasy with a bit of sex in it, eh? 😉

    1. Maybe I'm just a prude. Or maybe it's just a touchier subject for me than for others because of . . . reasons.

    2. I think it should be DO recommend it to your maiden aunt or Mother, they will probably thank you! However it is agreeably adult. :)

  3. Sorry, there was meant to be a smiley at the end of that, but I got a couple of boxes instead, so here it is. ;-)

  4. How fun to read your review with the book so fresh in my mind still! We clearly had very similar reactions to it. And I have to agree with you about thinking twice before recommending it to someone conservative. I'm a married woman and it even made me uncomfortable in parts...it's like the movie equivalent of showing two people in the act of having sex, not just panning the camera away as they're making out and returning to an image of them in bed with the sheets on. I picture the characters in my head as I'm reading and it goes into more detail than necessary. It's a personal preference and I know several people who would prefer not to read graphic scenes. However, despite being on the conservative side myself, it was totally worth it for the book overall, especially the story and the history woven in.

  5. Glad you got around to reading this! I found Margherita's and Selena's stories more engaging than Charlotte-Rose's, too. I think that's because they were so unique, familiar because I know the story of Petrosinella/Persinette/Rapunzel but also new because I wanted to see what Kate was doing with them. And I did recommend this book to my mother haha, and she loved it and took it to her WI book club...

    You must read Kate's other book, The Wild Girl, sometime too! I enjoyed that much more than Bitter Greens. It's much more dramatic and gritty, but quietly beautiful.