Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Historical fiction about real women, and fairytale retellings: two kinds of books that are in my wheelhouse. Bitter Greens by Australian author Kate Forsyth is both. Yay! It's a retelling of Rapunzel, set in 16th-century Italy, and a richly-detailed fictional account of the life of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, set in the French court of Louis XIV. Charlotte-Rose was the king's cousin, she was banished to a nunnery, and she is the author of the original Rapunzel/ Petrosinella story.

There are three central characters: Charlotte-Rose, Margherita (Rapunzel/ Petrosinella), and Silena (the witch). I listened to the audiobook [Blackstone: 19 hrs 26 min] and can still hear narrator Kate Reading's voice as the witch saying: "Petrosinella, Petrosinella, let down your hair, so I may climb the golden stair." 

There are parts that dragged a bit; sometimes from the weight of historical detail, a little too much about sexual dalliances, or too much dithering when I would have have preferred action. In a paper book, I can skim through stuff that doesn't interest me, but with audio it isn't so easy. Fortunately, I really like listening to Kate Reading's voice and her narration helps pull me through when I start to feel mired in a long story. 

I also came up against something else: my personal resistance to surrender. Readers filter narrative through our own experiences, so I always take note when I can feel resistance happening. It's an opportunity to learn about myself. In this case, when characters chose a submissive path, I was unhappy. It made me check whether this reaction had to do with the characters being true to themselves or my own stuff.

Hops shoots taste like
asparagus. Just eat the
tender top part.
Aside from the small things that I've mentioned, I enjoyed this book a lot and recommend it. As an element of total serendipity, I encountered bitter greens in three books within three weeks of each other. Grace Mccleen's The Land of Decoration features a religious zealot who believes bitter greens are a necessary part of his family's diet. I also read a whole book on the topic: Bitter by Jennifer McLagan. Another bit of serendipity: the old nun who befriends Charlotte-Rose is named Seraphina, and I happen to be rereading Seraphina by Rachel Hartman at the moment.

It's early spring in Edmonton, so my garden is supplying me with dandelion greens, young chicory leaves and hops shoots. Bring on the bitter!

Readalikes: The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre (for the court of the Sun King with a touch of fantastical elements); Zel by Donna Jo Napoli (another successful retelling of Rapunzel); and Wicked by Gregory Maguire (for the viewpoint of a misunderstood witch). Other great historical fiction/fairytale combinations include Tinder (Sally Gardner) and The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey).

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