Selena Leonelli, once the exquisite muse of the great Venetian artist Titian, is terrified of time.
Margherita, trapped in a doorless tower and burdened by tangles of her red-gold hair, must find a way to escape.
Three women, three lives, three stories, braided together in a compelling tale of desire, obsession and the redemptive power of love.
My three-year-old is obsessed with Disney Princesses and her favourite is Rapunzel. This means I have to launder her Rapunzel shirt at least twice a week and we’ve seen Tangled in both Dutch and English at least fifteen times. Luckily enough, I rather like the story of Rapunzel and Tangled is a pretty fun film – don’t get me started on the Pocahontas phase she had earlier this year – so when I was offered a review copy of Bitter Greens I was readily primed on the subject matter and inclined to say yes. Add to that this ringing endorsement by CW Gortner, whose The Queen’s Vow I’d just really enjoyed, and I was jumping out the gate. However, I got far more than just a retelling of Rapunzel in Bitter Greens, I got a glimpse of the intriguing life of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, one of the first female writers of literary fairy tales, and the glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France and a look at 16th-century Venice through the eyes of both an innocent and a jade. An intricate story within a story, a curious blend of historical fiction and true fairy-elements. And it has to be mentioned, all of this is delivered by Allison & Busby in a stunning package. It’s a beautifully put together book, with gorgeous cover art, black flyleaves, a black ribbon and yellow ends in the spine.
Like the plait in which Margherita is forced to keep her endless lengths of hair, the story consists of three strands that intertwine to form a stronger, more elegant whole. The base strand, the one we start with and the one that the others twine about is that of the story of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a French noblewoman banished from the court to a convent by King Louis XIV. Not a natural beauty like the many mistresses the king goes through at court and like her mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, Louis’ Maîtresse-en-Titre, the official royal mistress, she had to gain her position at court by other means. Instead of her looks, she uses her wits to get ahead, becoming a celebrated member of the Parisian salons and a well-known author of novels about historical figures. However, Charlotte-Rose was part of a court where one could be licentious and scandalous, but never be seen as such, so once she has too much scandal attached to her name, the king exiles her to the convent of Gercy-en-Brie, where she encounters Sœur Seraphina, a nun who tells her the tale we’ve come to know and love as Rapunzel. I really enjoyed Charlotte-Rose’s tale, as she is a wonderfully complex character, headstrong and independent, but aware of the dangers of her life and always looking for love and acceptance in the wrong arms. Her three ill-fated love affairs show how much the women of her age were dependent on making a good match so they could at least appear respectable and how easily these arrangements could be broken off if one of the respective parties’ families didn’t approve. I loved her wonderfully acerbic observations about the members of the court, but at the same time she shows she has a good heart when she helps the Duchesse de Fontanges even if it might be against her best interests. Charlotte-Rose also shows us the tawdriness beneath the glitter and glamour of the Sun King’s court, letting the reader see behind the curtain of the stunning palace of Versailles. Having visited there several times, it’s hard to imagine that those pristine and grand halls were in fact as crowded as they are described in the book. Then again, it’s easy to imagine how cold and drafty it could be as well!
The second strand is the story of Margherita, or Petrosinella as La Strega calls her, who is taken by the witch Selena Leonelli in exchange for her father’s hands when La Strega catches him stealing greens from her walled garden. She is the Rapunzel as we know her, the one in the tower, with the long, long hair and the prince and the singing. But before Margherita gets to that tower, we see her getting torn away from her family and being raised until maidenhood in one of the foundling hospitals of Venice, where she becomes one of their most gifted choir singers. I found this look at Venetian semi-monastic life fascinating, as it shows how much being shut away in a convent, willing or not, was part of a woman’s life, whether maiden, mother, or crone. We see it happen to Margherita, to Charlotte-Rose, and even earlier in the story to Charlotte-Rose’s mother. Several of the king’s discarded mistresses ended up in convents after they fell out of favour and it was a common practice to ship off younger or unmarriageable daughters to a convent, to both lose a mouth to feed and to create some goodwill with the church. It is only when Margherita is taken from the Pietà and locked away in a mysterious tower that the book takes a turn for the fantastical, as it turns out that the courtesan known as La Strega Bella, the beautiful witch, truly is a sorceress. Though even once locked in the tower, much of what happens can be explained away by simple ignorance on Margherita’s part and some form of mental imbalance on the part of Selena. I found the sections dealing with Margherita’s attempts at discovering a way out of the tower and the discoveries she makes, about the tower, about herself and about La Strega, fascinating. Margherita’s innocence stretches so far that once she’s discovered by the prince and falls in love with, after which the inevitable happens, she doesn’t even realise that she’s fallen with child. The resolution of her story is similar to the one found in the traditional Grimm version, which is in turn based on Charlotte-Rose’s Persinette. It is indeed a truly happily ever after for our Margherita, but it’s a happily ever after of her own making.
Our third strand in the plait is the story of the book’s villain, La Bella Strega, Selena Leonelli. We learn her tragic story; her awful youth on the canals of Venice after her beautiful courtesan mother is brutally raped and abused by her main patron and his servants. She is forced to care for her mother, who has lost the will to live and soon the young Selena is left all alone. She is taken in by their landlady, an old crone called Sibillia, who is a witch and who offers to teach her the arts. Driven by revenge Selena learns all she can, secretly studying the black arts, and afterwards becoming one of the most successful courtesans of Venice. She then meets Tiziano, a young artist better known to us as Titian, and becomes his lover and muse. Seeing her youthful beauty exquisitely reflected in his paintings, she can’t bear the thought of becoming old and this is what sets her on the path to Margherita and the tower. While Selena is obviously disturbed and dangerous, at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Knowing what she has seen and endured, her choices, while bad, are understandable. Her pathology, apart from wanting to bathe in virginal blood to stay young, also seems rather bound up in sexual and maternal themes. She keeps Margherita on the border of malnourishment, so as to keep her from going into puberty, and she isolates her so she’ll certainly remain a virgin. Another element is Selena’s need for Margherita to love her and treat her like a mother, which once the girl becomes too old to actually be her child – both physically and hormonally – without her having to be a crone effectively ends her usefulness to Selena.
This is a book of threes: three points of view; maiden, mother, crone; virgin, prostitute, saint; three significant relationships for Charlotte-Rose; and a mantra of three truths that ground Margherita in her sanity; three strands that make a stronger whole, a plait that connects Selena from the early 1500’s to Charlotte-Rose in the late 1600’s. Beyond a book with strong stories and themes, Bitter Greens is also a compelling read. I loved losing myself in its pages and Forsyth’s wonderful writing. The book is one of the most powerful fairy-tale retellings I’ve read and I can’t wait to read more books by Forsyth. Whether you’re a fan of historical fiction, fantasy or fairy-tale retellings, this book delivers for fans of all three. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.