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by Kate Forsyth
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date: September 23, 2014
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MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
This book left me totally stunned by its structure and quality. It is really a masterpiece, with an amazing blend between historical fiction and a double retelling in fact, of the fairy tale Rapunzel.
You may know Rapunzel as a work of the Grimm Brothers in 19th century Germany. They actually found their inspiration in the fairy tale Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, which was originally published in France in 1698, being itself a variation on an even older Italian tale. Literary critics are debating how Charlotte-Rose, who did not know Italian despite her vast culture, may have known of this tale.
In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth imagines a solution to this enigma, which seems totally plausible.
She puts all this together by telling us about the life of Charlotte-Rose, about her retelling of the tale, and about the original itself. This is brilliantly done, and here are more reasons why I loved it so much.
The different layers of this novel are fascinating and organized in an intricate way that I really enjoyed, even though I admit it could be slightly confusing for readers not used to historical novels using flashbacks:
- the layer of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force‘s early life (1654–1724) . She left her château de Cazeneuve (Gascony, France) at 16 to join the court of King Louis XIV in Versailles
- Her time at court, coming in the novel through her memories and day dreaming, and these are very nicely introduced
- Her time at the abbey of Gercy en Brie, after King Louis expelled her from court at age 47, because of her love affairs and also her impious writings
- Rapunzel as recounted to Charlotte-Rose. The beginning of the tale is set in the 16th century. The main heroine is Margherita, she is prisoner of the witch Selena
- Then an earlier layer in time, with Selena’s own early life and the life of own grandparents and mother
- Various short excerpts of poems related to Rapunzel are inserted at the beginning of each section
These are listed here in a chronological order, but the beauty and intricacy of the novel is how they are all intertwined. And of course this is highlighted by the multiple parallels Charlotte-Rose discerns between her own life and Margherita’s.
This novel as just as much the retelling of Rapunzel as it is a historical novel. It is so rich with life as it was under the Sun King:
- Charlotte-Rose was indeed one of many of the king’s mistresses to end up discarded and locked away in a nunnery
- Louis XIV’s terrible character and inflated ego
- his numerous mistresses, including Athénaïs, Maintenon, and even Des Oeillets, that you have heard about if you read the book or my review of The Shadow Queen
- the major issue of battles between Catholics and Protestants, and the horrors of the persecution of the Huguenots, especially after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes
- the other issue of witchcraft and fortune-tellers in Paris, also persecuted by the King. There are several passages on La Voisin, see again my review of The Shadow Queen about her
- La Bastille, just as dreadful as The Tower of London
- Molière and his theater troupe, so popular and successful at the time
- before Louis XIV, but here in Margherita’s background: the great art of Italian Renaissance, especially with Tiziano, better known in English as Titian
As for the life in a Benedictine abbey, the author did a great job on the sign language, and there are great scenes for instance when Charlotte receives the habit. A few scenes though earlier in the book, when she entered, were really shocking, and even though I studied a lot about that milieu, I had seriously never heard of such things. I think these scenes were totally unnecessary and did little but give a very biased negative view of monastic life. This is my only critic of the book.
During her court life, Charlotte-Rose wrote and published many books about the scandalous secret lives of French nobles. These books are still published and read today.
And it is during her time at the abbey that she rewrote Rapunzel. It was published in 1698 and is one of the first collection of French literary fairy tales.
VERDICT: With a brilliant feat of creativity, Kate Forsyth manages to lead her readers in the world of fairy tales while recreating for them the world of Louis XIV, as a French woman writer of the time experienced it in its glory and horror. Beware, you might want to remain in a locked tower like Rapunzel for the sake of reading this novel undisturbed!
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
The amazing power and truth of the Rapunzel fairy tale comes alive for the first time in this breathtaking tale of desire, black magic and the redemptive power of love.
Praise for Bitter Greens
“Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens is an enthralling concoction of history and magic, an absorbing, richly detailed, and heart-wrenching reimagining of a timeless fairytale.” —Jennifer Chiaverini, New York Times bestselling author of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival
“See how three vividly drawn women cope with injustice, loneliness, fear, longing. See how they survive—or perpetrate—treachery. Surrender yourself to a master storyteller, to delicious detail and spunky heroines. Bitter Greens is a complex, dazzling achievement.” —Susan Vreeland, New York Times bestselling author of Clara and Mr. Tiffany and Girl in Hyacinth Blue
“A magical blend of myth and history, truth and legend, Bitter Greens is one of those rare books that keeps you reading long after the lights have gone out, that carries you effortlessly to another place and time, that makes you weep and laugh and wish you could flip forward to make sure it all ends happily ever after—but for the fact that if you did so, you might miss a line, and no line of this book should be missed.” —Lauren Willig, New York Times bestselling author of The Ashford Affair
“Kate Forsyth wields her pen with all the grace and finesse of a master swordsman. In Bitter Greens she conjures a lyrical fairytale that is by turns breathtaking, inspiring, poetic, and heartbreakingly lovely. Set like a jewel within the events of history, it is pure, peerless enchantment.”—New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn
“Bitter Greens is pure enchantment–gripping and lyrical. From the high convent walls where a 17th century noblewoman is exiled, to a hidden tower which imprisons an innocent girl with very long hair, to the bitter deeds of a beautiful witch who cannot grow old–Kate Forsyth weaves an engrossing, gorgeously written tale of three women in search of love and freedom. A truly original writer, Forsyth has crafted an often terrifying but ultimately redemptive dark fairy tale of the heart.”—Stephanie Cowell, American Book Award-winning author of Claude & Camille
“Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens is not only a magnificent achievement that would make any novelist jealous, it’s one of the most beautiful paeans to the magic of storytelling that I’ve ever read.”—C.W. Gortner, author of The Queen’s Vow and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
“Threads of history and folklore are richly intertwined to form this spellbinding story. Kate Forsyth has excelled herself with Bitter Greens. Compulsively unputtdownable.”—Juliet Marillier, national bestselling author of Flame of Sevenwaters and Heart’s Blood
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