Bitter Greens

By Kate Forsyth            Vintage Books 2012             Adult fiction

Score: 8.5/10                Genre: Historical Fiction & Dark Fairytale Retelling

Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been exiled to an austere nunnery by Louis XIV. The story follows her recollections of her journey from French country nobility to the decadence of the King’s court at Versailles. Charlotte-Rose is neither beautiful nor rich but gains admiration through her quick wit and storytelling abilities. Scandalous love affairs and accusations of witchcraft damage her reputation. Finally, she finds her true love but obstacles of different faiths and status conspire to force them apart.

The Rapunzel-based tale is a story within the story. It is told to Charlotte-Rose by an old nun, Soeur Seraphina while they work in the garden. La Strega is the youth-obsessed witch of the tale and Margherita, the beautiful girl who she abducts and imprisons in a high tower.

This is an ambitious novel blending genres of fairytale fantasy and historical fiction. Forsyth uses a backdrop of real historical figures and events. The settings of 16th century Venice (La Strega’s domain) and 17th century France are described in vivid detail – from the festivals of Venice, to the squalor of the Bastille to the ridiculous fashions of the French court -it is obvious all facets of French and Venetian life of the periods have being meticulously researched. The story of Charlotte-Rose (based on a real writer) could have stood alone as an historical fiction novel but the added fairytale strand inject magic and romanticism.

I wavered between preferring the Charlotte-Rose story and the Rapunzel story but I worried most of the way through about how the plot strands would come together in the end. Rest assured they do. The resolution of this story was satisfying and complete.

This wasn’t a page turner for me. Perhaps it was the inappropriate circumstances in which I read the novel (see below) or perhaps it was the sometimes confusing parade of French noble names or maybe the complexity of the plot didn’t allow enough room to relate intimately to the main characters. Strangely I admired this story more after I finished it than when I was in its midst.

A note about the cover: The quote from the The Age on the front cover says ‘A darkly compelling novel which simply seethes with sex scenes.’ There are sex scenes in this novel some passionate, some violent however to put this as a prominent main descriptor is, I think, a misrepresentation. It is more historical fiction than erotica.

Recommended for: Historical fiction lovers and those who are nostalgic for fairytales. Particularly recommended for those who have travelled or are planning to travel to Venice or France. Take this as a holiday (or post-holiday) read. It will add a level of magic to your view of historical landmarks and the countryside. I read this during a tour of Australian country towns and it just didn’t feel right.

Use for writers: Historical fiction writers – read this book and weep. The rich detail and the historical authenticity is hard to live up to. I believe Kate Forsyth when she says that she read many, many biographies and history books in the course of her research. She also travelled to Venice and France to immerse herself in the environment of the novel.

Writers could also learn a lot from the ending. The concluding chapters tied up all strands of the complex plot and left me, not only satisfied, but somewhat relieved. Like long matted tresses that are magically untangled and tied neatly in a snood.

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