REVIEW: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth
Spoiler (Trigger Warning): Show
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
French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens…
After Margherita’s father steals parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.
Locked away in a tower, Margherita sings in the hope that someone will hear her. One day, a young man does.
Dear Ms. Forsyth,
It’s rare that I read a romance book these days that I don’t already have some idea of how the plot will play out. Sometimes I can predict exactly what will happen when and it’s these books that usually almost put me to sleep. So when I come across a book which surprises me as well as delights me with its originality, I get excited. This is such a book even if maybe, technically it isn’t all a romance.
After a bit of backstory, I was expecting the book to quickly jump to the Rapunzel story, as after all that’s what the book is about, right? But no. Instead an amazing start details how Charlotte-Rose gets sent away to a convent. I felt like I was along for her self pitying leave taking of the glory that was the court of the Sun King at Versailles, the bumpy and cold trip to the even colder and bleaker convent as well as the meeting with the sadistic Soeur in charge of postulants. Before I knew it, I was totally wrapped up in the shock Charlotte-Rose feels about this alien world and the women who inhabit it.
It’s a fascinating opening and I found myself learning new things that are effortlessly added to the narrative. Plus they are things that need to be there or have a use rather than just as a show off of research done. I wasn’t in any hurry for Fairy Tale to begin because Charlotte-Rose is so interesting and fun to read about. She’s certainly not an easy person to like at times but I was pulling and rooting for her nonetheless.
Once the kinder Soeur Seraphina begins to tell her fairy tale, I got lost in that world as well. I can see it, touch it, sense it. As with the first section, I was floating along in a happy reading daze as the story unfolded around me. I’d read and read and eventually come up for air to discover that pages had flown by and hours sped past. Seraphina takes the story far past what I grew up hearing and reading by adding backstories, shading in details and giving the whole a glorious color and life.
In the Brothers Grimm version I read as a child, poor Rapunzel’s day to day existence locked up in the tower is skimmed over. Here we see how horrifying, lonely and boring it was. I like the fact that Margherita uses her brains to stay sane and does have agency. She’s told there’s no escape but she tests that to the limit. She makes nice when she has to but never forgets her three truths.
My name is Magherita.
My parents loved me.
One day, I will escape.
But wait, there’s more. We even get the Bella Strega’s point of view and if anyone deserved to get her revenge while learning the arts of herbs and scorcery it’s Selena. She’s tough to begin with and, after what happens to her mother, gets even more hardened early on in her life. I can feel sympathy for what she endured but it is hard to feel sorry for her given what she does to others who had nothing to do with her mother’s fate. However she did come by her mindset of “me first and I must stay beautiful” honestly though.
As I continued to read the book, it was clear that an overriding theme for all the women is that historically, women were at the mercy of men. The witch who taught Selena said it right – a woman could be a nun, a wife or a whore. And the actor who first broke Charlotte-Rose’s heart imparted a secondary truth – a woman needs to be pretty or rich or preferably both to prosper in their world. These realities of the times serve as the impetus for the women’s actions.
It’s also easy to see the parallel between the story within a story in that Charlotte-Rose suffers some of Margherita’s fate – both are locked away, far from loved ones and places at the whim of another. Both have to rely on themselves and both manage to shape their fates as much as it was possible for women to do.
The story was unique and engaging, informative without being a history lesson. I had no idea what would happen next and I can’t tell you how much this thrilled me. The flashbacks opened the beauty and decay of the city of Venice, the glittering world of Versailles and the horror of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In writing the book you truly were enjoying a world Charlotte-Rose could only dream of and in reading it I had a wonderful time. B+
Can’t wait to read this! Rapunzel is one of my favorites.
This sounds good. Tell me more about the spoiler – how graphic is it? how traumatic?
And I can’t tell from the review – is there a romance in this?
This sounds good. Love the retelling of fairytales.
I think Cinderella is my favourite fairy tale.
Oh, I usually don’t like the fairytale retold, but this is sounding very good.
I like stone soup. Which I’m not entirely sure counts as a fairy tale, but does show up in the giant index (which I only know about because of Seanan McGuire), and so I’m sticking with it. Or else diamonds and toads, because I loved the illustrations in my ancient book.
I always liked “The Princess and the Frog”, since in the original the Princess threw the Frog against the wall, instead of giving him a kiss. This action pleased me greatly as a seven year old girl.
That looks really good. Yay unpredictable. My favorite fairy tale would have to be Snow White and Rose Red.
This sounds like such an interesting book.
My favourite fairy tale is Beauty and the Beast.
I love Beauty and the Beast. This book sounds intriguing.
This looks good!
Years ago I pick up The Witches of Eileanan by KF in a thrift store. It was so good and I had fun tracking down the other books in the series. I think it was the first time I used Amazon instead of a brick and mortar.
I got the dreaded 404, so I’ll try again.
This looks good. Years ago I picked up The Witches of Eileanan in a thrift store. It was so good and I had a wonderful time tracking down the other books in the series. I think it was the first time I used Amazon to get a book I couldn’t find in a brick and mortar.
Want! Love fairy tales retellings. Thanks Jayne.
I’ve always had a soft spot for beauty and the beast tales, though I’m a fan of pretty much any fairy tale retelling/revamp/revision … well, the well-written ones, anyway!
I think my favorite fairy tale is a difficult choice between Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. This book sounds amazing.
I loved fairy tales as a child. To have character and depth added to an adult retelling sounds wonderful.
@cleo: The event is very traumatic both for Bella Strega who is hiding under her mother’s bed (and from whose POV the scene is told) while it’s occurring and to her mother who is mentally broken afterwards. It’s a revenge gang rape, punishing the mother for rejecting her main, wealthy Venetian noble customer and trying to escape the life of a courtesan with another man.
The book is not a typical HEA romance. There is a romance and HEA for Margherita. Charlotte-Rose does fall in love and marries but the man’s father has the marriage annulled and sends his son off to the Army. The book says the couple never saw each other again. Since Charlotte-Rose was a real person, Forsyth couldn’t alter that. The fictional character of Bella Strega had a tempestuous relationship with the artist Titian over a number of years.
My favorite fairy tale would probably be Cinderella. I don’t normally go for re-telling of fairy tales, but after reading your review, I’m going to have to reconsider! This sounds interesting.
Robin Hood is my favorite fairy tale. I’m a sucker for a hero who commits crimes but for the right reasons.
This sounds fantastic. They aren’t really a fairy tale, but I loved The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope and Tam Lin by Pamela Dean.
Eeeee, $12.99. I will wait I think :(.
Lovely review. I remember eying this one on Amazon and thinking that the premise looked interesting and the cover was pretty. Good to know the content lives up to the packaging.
I love any and all fairy tales retold. My favorite tale is East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
I love the little mermaid
Nothing can top “The Beauty and the Beast”…
Beauty and the beast
My favorite fairy tale is The Little Mermaid.
oooh… I’m always looking for unique fairy tale retellings! Thanks for the review! I’m gonna say that while I love the B&B, Cinderella standards, I also love the unique and lesser known fairy tales. I remember as a preteen glomming 101 Arabian Nights and the original Grimms fairy tales. I think I’m gonna have to go grab a copy and refresh :) Thanks for sharing!
I love both the well-known Beauty and the Beast and the practically unknown Salt Dearer Than Gold.
I’m rather fond of Rapunzel, I think its the hair, but I think my favorite is East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
My favorites are Beauty and the Beast and Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel (movie version of Cinderella where she gets to kick some butt).
@Eva: Oh, that’s such a cute movie. I finally found a copy a few years ago based on the rec of another DA poster and did a movie review of it under the Czech name. https://dearauthor.com/book-reviews/overall-b-reviews/friday-film-review-tri-orisky-pro-popelku/
Wheee this sounds awesome! My favorite is The little mermaid.
I adored fairytales when I was young and still do. I had several that I would read again and again. The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Matchgirl. I think these stories shaped my reading preferences. Maybe that is why I prefer a little tragedy in my stories today.
My favorite fairy tale is “The Princess and the Pea”.
Princess and the Pea. I still have the book from when I was a toddler. It is one of the Little Goldens with beautiful illustrations.
My favorite fairy tale is the story of Princess Parizade from A Thousand and One Nights. I loved that she got to go on an adventure and rescue princes.
RE: the Frog King & the bringing about of his disenchantment: That really depends on the version you’re looking at. There’s also a Scottish version of the tale (The Well at the World’s End) where the frog asks the princess to chop his head off. :-)
If you are German or if you can read German, check out Lutz Röhrich’s “Wage es, den Frosch zu küssen”: her discusses the different versions of the tale and includes the tales themselves. He has three different Grimms’ versions (1810, 1812, 1857) printed side by side, and it’s so interesting to see how the Grimms edited the “raw” version of 1810 (not published during their lifetime).
This sounds interesting. :)
I really liked the old school Grimm/Anderson fairy tales, but the one that sticks with me is the tale of Bluebeard (especially the illustration by Gustave Dore).
Other Tanya, My favorite fairy tale is also East of the Sun and West of the Moon. I had a moment of confusion thinking I had commented before and was going insane. I love fairy tale retellings but I’m a little hesitant about this one. I don’t love the story within a story writing technique but I will add it to my wish list as a maybe.
@Sirius: Check your local library.
Ever since reading “Beauty” by Robin McKinley, I’ve loved “Beauty and the Beast” (although I will admit that perhaps I just love Robin McKinley’s version so much — how can you not love a story with a horse named Greatheart?).
My favorite fairy tale has always been Beauty & The Beast. This book sounds really good, thanks for the give away!
I love Beauty and the Beast, and the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. (Aurora’s one of the most boring heroines ever, but the artwork and the use of Tchaikovsky’s music are wonderful.)
This book is awesome. I’d recommend reading Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth as well. It’s about the next door neighbour of the Brothers Grimm who was one of their fairy tale sources. It broke my heart but put it back together by the last chapter.
Snow White and Rose Red. Also some of the French Canadian or Russian stories.
@Kathryn Flaherty: I read the blurb for Wild Girl and was put off by the description that made me think it’s a sad saga with no HEA.
I’ve always said Cinderella but I just may pick a new one soon.
Beauty and the Beast. Thanks for the giveaway!!
I really do like the “new and improved” variety of fairy talkes where the girl has some agency and the boy has some personality.
One of my favourite fairytales is The Wild Swans.
I absolutely adored this book! I agree with you in saying that the plot was unpredictable, and in essence that is what I loved most about it. With the way this book was written, it could go incredibly good, or incredibly bad. Kate Forsyth definitely came out on top with this one. :)