Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bitter Greens

I was very excited to read Kate Forsyth's latest novel Bitter Greens and glad to find it at my library. The idea of weaving the life the author of one of the most famous versions of "Rapunzel", Charlotte-Rose de la Force, with the plot of the fairy tale itself, was intriguing to me.

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."

Ernst Liebermann

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.

(Illustration-Sarah Gibb)

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.


  1. I read and loved this book soon after it came out. Kate Forsyth is a wonderful writer who researches thoroughly. Even her children's fantasy novels are believable. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend her novel The Wild Girl, about Dortchen Wild, the girl next door to the Grimm Brothers, who told them a large chunk of their stories(they never did wander the countryside talking to old peasan women!) and married one of them.

    1. I have not read Wild Girl yet! This was my first time reading Kate Forsyth (not for want of trying though, "Bitter Greens" is the only book my library has of hers). I am definitely interested though-I've read several books on the Grimms but would love a more extensive look into the life of Dortchen Wild! There is some historical fiction that I dislike reading because afterwards I just get confused about what is historically accurate, but it really seems like Forsyth's books are legitimate ways to learn about history as well as read a good story.

      And thanks for the interview link below! Makes me even MORE anxious to read "Wild Girl"!

  2. PS There's an interview with her on my blog, here:

  3. As someone who writes both historical fiction and fairy-tale based fantasy, I loved this book! Charlotte-Rose's fierce wit and scandalous romances make for compelling reading. The minute she is banished from court and incarcerated in a nunnery in the very first chapter, divested of her fancy clothes, her hair, and—her writing implements!—I was completely hooked!

    I also liked the "surprise" ending, and I thought it was completely fitting in this modern era of reclaimed and redeemed "villains." (Also, it was fun o see a page from Kate Forsyth's notebook!)

    1. I think I didn't initially connect with Charlotte-Rose's character because she was pretty much the typical feminist heroine-fiesty, doesn't do well under authority, sexually liberated, strong-willed-which by now has become almost a cliche and is totally unlike me (I'm a people pleaser and was incredibly shy as a child-and the idea of having multiple affairs just makes me sad). But I realized it was based on historical truth and not some idealized version of what we think women should have been like in older cultures, and once I read more of her history I really sympathized. I think Forsyth wrote her character from a solid understanding of the culture and whatever facts are known about her and so she was more than just another feminist histocial fiction heroine.

      And yes the ending is great! The forgiveness element can be lame in some fairy tale versions, but she had secretly been setting it up all along so we believed that the witch could actually change; Margherita did it out of a place of both power and compassion and not naivety, so it was really refreshing.

  4. Forsyth has a BatB retelling coming out in the fall, The Beast's Garden, and it looks fabulous as well. Loved Bitter Greens.

    1. Yes, I've heard about that! A BATB retelling I'm actually going to let myself get excited for! The more I hear from other readers, the more it seems like Kate Forsyth is THE current fairy tale reteller, everybody loves her books!

    2. She's wonderful, but there are also some other Australian women writers doing amazing fairytale retellings - Juliet Marillier(Daughter Of The Forest - The Wild Swans, Heart's Blood - Beauty and The Beast and some short fiction based on Russian fairytales), Sophie Masson - just about everything, but off the top of my head, Moonlight And Ashes(Cinderella - Aschenputtel rather than Cendrillion), Margo Lanagan(Tender Morsels, a rather gruesome retelling of Snow White And Rose Red, which was quite controversial in the US and her novel about selkies, Sea Hearts in Australia, The Brides of Rollrock Island elsewhere).

    3. I read Heart's Blood a few years ago, but nothing by Sophie Masson or Margo Lanagan. Going on my to-read list!

  5. I've just started reading The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth; I am similarly impressed with the historical detail, in this instance about Napoleon's invasions, blended with a story about the Grimms and Dortchen Wild, who Wilhelm married. The blending of their story with the fairy tales the brothers are collecting is really well done, I'm enjoying it immensely so far.