One of the first things I noticed was how well researched it was. I can't imagine how much time it took Forsyth to read about all the little details, from court life in France under the reign of Louis XIV, to the secluded convents, to the life of mask makers in sixteenth century Italy. The details made the story believable and at the same time educational. I loved the interweaving of historical characters into the plot (including famous fairy tale collectors Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault!).
I also loved learning some more about the significance and beliefs about parsley, for in De la Force's version of the fairy tale, the heroine is named after parsley (Persinette) and not the rapunzel plant. "There's a legend that parsley first grew where the blood of some Greek hero was spilt. And so the Greeks used to put bunches of it on graveyards, and sprinkle it on corpses...parsley self-seeds, which means it can spring up again from where the mother plant died. Though it takes a while to germinate. When I was a child, people said that's because the seed travelled to hell and back seven times before sprouting...Only married women or widows are meant to plant parsley seeds. Any virgin who does so risks being impregnated by Lucifer."
The opening of Bitter Greens in Kate Forsyth's own handwriting
The novel weaves together three different plot lines; that of Margherita/Rapunzel/Persinette, the witch, and Charlotte-Rose. Charlotte-Rose's storyline didn't always go chronologically so it was a little confusing at times but all made sense in the end. I'll admit it took me a little while to get into the book at first-I didn't connect as much with Charlotte-Rose until I read more of her back story. But as soon as we started learning about the witch's point of view, I was hooked. I know that these days it's pretty trendy to tell the witch's back story and make the villain seem more sympathetic, but it also has to do with realism. Rapunzel's witch goes to all the trouble to outfit a tower and keep a young girl prisoner there-why would anyone possibly do that? She seems like one of the least believable fairy tale villains, but after reading the story it made perfect sense.
A major theme of the book was exploring different kinds of prisons. Obviously Persinette was locked in a tower, but Charlotte-Rose wrote the story while confined in a convent. To modern ears, this might not seem like a huge deal, but the convent described in the book was no better than a prison (probably worse than modern prisons, especially if you weren't Catholic and forced there against your will). Yet there are other types of prisons too-for a brief while Charlotte-Rose's husband was imprisoned by his father-I liked the fact that she showed men could also be imprisoned and in need of rescue, and that whole scene where she rescues him disguised as a bear is crazy, but also completely true! Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed...
(Illustration by Evanira)
Although there are symbolic prisons too. And in fact, the life of a woman in either culture (17th century France and 16th century Italy) was basically a prison. And while that may seem a tad overdramatic, just reading the novel and the historical realities about the lack of rights women had and the ways they were abused was heartbreaking. These really were dark periods of history and the some of the chatacter's stories were quite tragic. As one of the characters says, a woman had three choices in life-to be a wife, a nun, or a whore. And although, to our modern eyes, marriage would seem like the obvious best choice, to a woman at the time, marriage could actually mean the worst of both other options. Wives might be locked away, like nuns in a convent, while their husbands openly paraded around their mistresses, yet forced to pleasure their husbands with no regards to their own feelings. Men (especially the King) often flaunted mistresses, while women were shamed for losing their virginity (I will never understand how the flawed logic of this wasn't obvious at the time). At one point in the novel Persinette/Margherita muses, "She could have been sent into service, apprenticed by a craftsman, enclosed in a convent, or, in time, married-all of these were different types of imprisonment."
In those societies, a woman was given value only for her wealth, beauty, and chastity. In those conditions, it really isn't surprising that so many women would turn to extremes to retain their beauty, like the witch does in this story. And given that women would never be respected in society, the best they could hope for was to gain power-and through their sexuality, many of the prostitutes had at least the illusion of power, and a way to gain wealth.
As far as sexual content, there really would be no way to convey a historically account of the experience of women in those societies without frank references to sex. Charlotte-Rose herself was quite scandalous, and the whole of the Court of Louis XIV was filled with shocking affairs. That said, there were times I thought the writing went into too much detail (especially the chapter where Charlotte-Rose was engaged to the Marquis de Nesle-the descriptions of how they gave into temptation did nothing to advance the plot or characters and that section felt like erotica to me). Forsyth herself describes the book as a "sexy" retelling, so just be aware that this isn't for very young girls, and you might also want to avoid gifting it to more conservative friends and relatives.
I also didn't like how romance was portrayed. Even the couples who supposedly had happy marriages-Margherita's/Persinette's parents, Charlotte-Rose and her husband Charles, and Persinette and her lover-they were all love at first sight and pretty much instant gratification. They weren't really that different than the relationships that were abusive, and I didn't buy them.
Aside from those flaws, it was a fascinating and exciting book. It really "made history come alive" to me, to use the cliche. For example-to an introvert like me, the idea of being locked away in a tower sometimes seems like it would be wonderful (especially if you have Disney's "Tangled" in mind and the tower is basically home to every pleasure a little girl could wish for). But reading the book, the tower really seemed like an imposing prison. Things I vaguely remembered from history class, like the French religious wars, all of a sudden have so much more meaning and elicited a very emotional response. It really brought together lots of things I've read separately-music history, art history, fairy tale history, general history-and made me feel like I have a much better understanding of the time periods in general now.
I wasn't sure how it would end and I won't give away spoilers, only say that there was one twist on the traditional story that might not have worked but I think Forsyth did an excellent job with it, and typing up loose ends. If anyone else has read "Bitter Greens", please feel free to discuss in the comments! It's definitely a book that will stay in my mind for a while.