Themes Explored: youth, family, loneliness, magic, witchcraft, religion, bravery, courage, resilience, death, politics, abduction, fear, betrayal, loyalty, the art of pleasure, disappointment, revenge, rituals, penance, court intrigue, romance, true love, self-reliance, perseverance, superstition
Synopsis: 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. (Adapted from Goodreads)
Review: The Rapunzel tale known to readers today is a German fairy tale that was published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. This Grimm story is an adaption of Frances Schulz’s 1790 fairy tale Rapunzel. Schulz adapted his tale from the story Persinette by Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, which was originally published in 1698. So this story has been around for an incredibly long time. The story of a girl locked in a tower has been adapted for the screen, the stage, and full length books. Two modern film adaptions include Disney’s’ Tangled and Into the Woods. All these adaptions contain fairly identical plots: a garden, a witch, desperate parents, kidnapping, a young girl growing up in a tower, a prince, and escape. All the retellings are set apart based upon how the author chooses to flesh out the background details. In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth weaves together a tale about Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the witch Selena, and Margherita. The result is a historical novel with the enchanting elements of a classic fairy tale.
French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force is banished to a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV after a series of a scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is depressed and convinced that she is going to spend the rest of her life living a destitute existence. Charlotte-Rose finds some comfort from the old nun Sœur Seraphina. Over the course of several days, Sœur Seraphina tells the tale of a young girl whose parents sold her for a handful of bitter greens a hundred years earlier. Seven years before her birth, Margherita’s father steals a handful of parsley from the walled garden of the famed courtesan Selena Leonelli. She offers to either cut his hands off for stealing or he can give her their soon-to-be born daughter. Selena is a famous red head and the dazzlingly gorgeous muse of the famous artist Tiziano. She is the center of the Renaissance in Venice and revels in the world of beauty, seduction, love, and superstition. But rumors about her supernatural dabbling refuse to die down and she must take drastic measures to stay seductively beautiful. For reasons of her own, she takes Margherita and locks her away in a tower. This act leads to both Selena’s downfall and redemption.
Bitter Greens tells the interweaving story of Charlotte-Rose, Selena, and Margherita. Charlotte-Rose de la Force was an actual person; she was a 17th century French writer and poet, second cousin to King Louis XIV, and a member of his superstitious court. Mademoiselle de la Force was raised in the Huguenot tradition but was forced to convert to Catholicism. After her conversion, she was banished to a convent and given a state pension to fund her new life as a nun. While in the convent she wrote her memoirs and a collection of fictional stories. In Bitter Greens Charlotte-Rose is the main narrator and her narrative makes up the majority of the narrative. As a member of the court, she possess a deep knowledge of the political moods of Louis XIV’s court. She lives through religious persecution, the witch hunt known as the Affair of the Poisons, and a daring plan to rescue her fiancée. All of this is fascinating to read and is a wonderful story.
However, Forsyth spends too much time describing Charlotte-Rose’s life in excreting detail. This means the story becomes less about Charlotte’s life and more about King Louis’ numerous love affairs. Forsyth did her homework and it shows in her vivid and detailed descriptions of 17th century clothing, manners, societal expectations, and superstition. Charlotte-Rose’s world is gritty and repulsive, women are treated as second class citizens. Beauty is celebrated, intelligence is reviled, and the whims of the King can change your life forever. Forsyth’s writing is slightly stilted and overly academic when describing Charlotte-Rose’s life before the convent. While the background gives the character some great depth, the pacing really suffered and the writing was not as strong as the rest of the novel. I wish Forsyth has spent less time on Charlotte-Rose’s court life and more time on her life after her banishment. Also, while Charlotte-Rose is interesting, I wish Forsyth had focused more on Selena and Margherita. They are the two characters who are fundamental to the Rapunzel story and they did not receive quite enough “screen time”, so to speak.
Forsyth’s writing really shines when she starts to weave the tale of Margherita and Selena. She adds several great elements, such as Selena giving Margherita the trademark long hair by braiding her hair with the hair of eight previous “rapunzels”. I especially like the Prince character, he is hilarious. Anyways, Margherita’s story is witty and amusing for the most part. She then descends into depression and despair when she realizes that she cannot escape the tower. This part of the narrative is incredibly well written and truly captivating. Forsyth does a wonderful job showing Margherita’s descent into hopelessness and how she eventually finds the courage to break free. Selena, on the other hand, is a complicated individual. She is the daughter of a prostitute. Her mother dies in a particularly horrific manner and there is a rape scene, which is not explicitly detailed. A young Selena vows revenge and sets about to make herself invincible. This leads her down a dark path of witchcraft and black magic. Everything seems to be going according to her plan until she kidnaps Margherita. I enjoyed the characterization of Selena and I appreciate that Forsyth did not make her a straight up villain. She is quite villainous, but Forsyth explores how she came to be the person she became.
Overall, Bitter Greens is a captivating retelling of the classic Rapunzel tale. It is not just about a gorgeous young girl trapped in a tower, it is also about survival, love, loss, power, forgiveness, and redemption. Since this is a novel about three women, not a lot of time is spent on the male characters. So do not expect any strong male leads. Margherita’s prince and the artist Tiziano are the only two males with any type of depth. I would have liked a slightly more developed Prince character. However, this is one of the better fairy tale retellings I have read and I plan on rereading it again.
Bitter Greens, Thomas Dunne Books, 2014, ISBN 9781250047533