Bitter Greens was everything I’d wished for in a fairy tale: engrossing, dazzling, and truly magical. Beneath the grit and drama of this Rapunzel retelling for adults lay hints of that same fairy tale I loved as a child. Kate Forsyth wove together an intricate story that spanned three different time periods with three beautifully written protagonists, and both the plot and the characters make this an engrossing read.
Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force is a French writer who is forced to leave her glamorous life in the court of the Sun King to live in a nunnery. There, she meets Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the story of Margherita, a young girl who was taken away by a beautiful red-haired witch in exchange for bitter greens that Margherita’s father had stolen from the witch’s garden. Selena Leonelli, the red-haired witch, has led a harsh life and swore to defy time itself. The lives of these three women are changed forever as their tales intersect…
Forsyth has done an amazing amount of research on Mademoiselle de la Force (1650-1724) and her life – the picture she painted of the Sun King’s court is so rich and luxurious that I could almost see it. The characters are full of personality, for better or for worse; Louis XIV acted exactly like I expected (and I don’t think I like him very much), and the extravagance of the time comes with some pretty terrible plots and betrayals that Forsyth cleverly arranged to push the story forward. I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, so I didn’t really get into the book until Margherita’s narrative started. But after that, the alternating narratives were exciting, and Charlotte-Rose’s story picked up, so it felt like I was reading three-good-books-in-one (such a good deal!).
Margherita’s personality wasn’t fully developed until much later on, since she was only seven when she was first introduced in Bitter Greens. However, Forsyth was able to draw attention to Margherita’s tale with this mysterious and suspenseful beginning to her narrative:
These three things were true:
Her name was Margherita.
Her parents had loved her.
One day, she would escape.
And when Selena Leonelli’s narrative starts almost halfway into the book, her voice really shows through her narrative. Her disturbing past has given her a will of steel, and I think her story was the one that made me want to flinch the most out of all three (although the other ones had some pretty explicit or unsettling imagery too).
The second spell I learnt was how to drive a man mad by disturbing his sleep with nightmares. This is how you do it.
Something that all three women had in common was love and passion, and they all grow and change (again, for better or for worse) due to love affairs, first loves, or true loves. Aside from love and passion, I think Charlotte-Rose, Margherita, and Selena shared many emotions – including loneliness, hatred, and desperation – which made their characters more connected and allowed the three stories to flow as one.
Of course, just because I really enjoyed this doesn’t mean that it was perfect. There were times when I felt like I had inadequate knowledge of what was going on in a character’s life; for example, one of Charlotte-Rose’s lovers came out of nowhere, and their first meeting was never brought up, which made it hard to explain to my brain why she loved him and why their relationship worked. And don’t be mistaken: this is not a book for young readers. There are explicit scenes of rape, sex, abuse, violence, and other dark stuff that I would never have imagined would fit in a fairy tale… but it worked. (But I also don’t watch Once Upon A Time or Grimm, and maybe they’re pretty dark too?) Then, the ending left me with so much gratification that I forgot all about the bad things that have happened, and I guess that’s what makes this a fairy tale, right?
Bitter Greens is such a great deal – it’s like three stories and two genres in one book! It has drama, adventure, magic, and history. It makes you feel all the feels, from the deepest devastation to the most ecstatic relief. This is one fairy tale retelling that you shouldn’t miss out on!