Monday, August 19, 2013

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

At some point last year there was a lot of buzz in the blogosphere about Kate Forsyth’s novel Bitter Greens. Every review raved about this brilliant historical novel, which is, among other things, a retelling of the fairy tale Rapunzel.

For some reason, maybe because of the fairy-tale retelling bit, I was under the impression that it was a YA historical. (It definitely is not.) At any rate, I very much wanted to read the book, but I couldn’t get hold of a copy. U.S. bookstores didn’t carry it. Amazon had used copies but not many. Even The Book Depository failed me. It was "currently unavailable" for months and months.

Finally, with Forsyth’s new book, The Wild Girl, coming out (but also not available in the US?) and still frustrated that I had yet to read Bitter Greens, I decided to buy a used copy from Amazon.

I’m always thrilled when a book lives up to expectations. This one delivered even more. I was anticipating a retelling of the classic story of Rapunzel, but Bitter Greens is a multi-layered story within a story. It begins by introducing the reader to Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, a French writer contemporary of King Louis XIV. She led a somewhat scandalous life, including the writing of some novels which were not as anonymous as she believed. This led to her banishment by the king to a convent where she continued to write, penning her version of Rapunzel. (This much is true.)

Charlotte-Rose’s "memoir" is fascinating reading. It alone would carry a novel. But while in the convent, Charlotte-Rose hears the stories of Rapunzel and of the witch. Both are presented as factual, so the reader hears the fairy tale as history and the book morphs into a marvelous sort of medieval fantasy. Men’s wickedness, women’s relative lack of power, sex and witchcraft are all twisted together until an innocent girl ends up locked in a tower. The parallels with Charlotte-Rose’s incarceration in the nunnery are clear, along with other similarities between her life and Rapunzel/Margherita’s.

The three women’s stories are equally compelling and Forsyth’s pacing of them is perfect. Even though I hated to leave off one thread, I was anxious to see what was going on with the others. And so it was nearly impossible to stop reading because I had to keep up with all three tales. The writing is beautiful and so vivid that the boundaries between the fairy tale and the historical fiction blurred. Normally I prefer historical fiction to be realistic and historical fantasy to stay on its own side of the line, but this book was simply magical.

If you can find a copy of Bitter Greens, I highly recommend it. This is my 23rd book for the historical fiction challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.


  1. I'm not normally a fan of historical fantasy either, but this book is just so good. You'll have to see if you can get your hands on The Wild Girl, it is just as good.

  2. Your review has convinced me to give this one a try. Too bad it's not readily available in the U.S. I can order a copy via Book Depository so I just may do so this evening :-)

  3. I'd like to check this one out because I adore anything fairy tale related but am disappointed to hear it was so hard to track down in the US. I still have it on my list but it will have to remain a lower priority just for now.