Title: Bitter Greens
Author: Kate Forsyth
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Publisher: Random House
Release Date: March 20th, 2012
Source: Borrowed from my local library
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.
This is one of the best fairytale retellings I’ve ever read. The historical fiction is fascinating, following the life of a woman I’d never heard of before, but who was one of the first few to write fairytales in French (not long after the very first recorded telling of Rapunzel was published). Charlotte-Rose is a sympathetic character, and although the Afterward didn’t give us much in terms of what about her life was fact in this novel, and what was fiction, it’s inspired me to learn more about her.
For one, the glimpse into French life, both countryside and at court, in the late 1600s and early 1700s was fascinating. What I know of Louis XVI (the Sun King) is dry history class details. I don’t recall anything about his religious reformations, nor about women regularly being imprisoned in convents. Holy cats, am I glad to live in the here and now.
Juxtaposed to that was the fantastical tale of Rapunzel (relayed closer to the original Neopolitan version than the Disney version we know today). It’s a beautiful story about the force of belief and the nature of forgiveness. The story is told through 4 women’s perspectives as the tale overlaps (this was slightly confusing with the audiobook version, although not enough to put me off): Charlotte-Rose, la Strega (aka Selena), Margherita’s mother, and Margherita. In a way, it’s a story of maiden, mother, and crone.
Each character is fascinating, and very real. I found myself frustrated any time the perspective shifted, and then quickly sucked into the narrative despite myself. I definitely recommend this one in audiobook format, because the narrator pronounces her French beautifully, and it made this very lyrical, sensuous story come alive that much more. And it IS sensuous- I don’t mean graphic sex here (although sex happens), but every word choice is part of the experience. Charlotte-Rose is a consummate storyteller, and la Strega weaves magic with words, and so of course the language is part of the tale.
Overall, I highly recommend this story for those who love historical fiction with a touch of magic, fairytales and fairytale retellings, stories involving fully-realized women making decisions and taking action, 1600s Venice, 1700s France, the nature of belief, love in all forms, and beautifully-written prose.