Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “Bitter Greens”

When I say I have a lit nerdy soul, I’m not exaggerating. My husband has to give me visual cues to “STOP TALKING” when he sees my impromptu lit lectures are losing our friends. I’ve begun timing myself to ensure I keep my comments about books under two minutes. I’ll often ask loved ones if they’re sure they want me to answer that lit-related question.

The last time I asked this, my brother thought for a minute, then said, “Let me go to the bathroom first.”

Not a good sign.

But that’s why I’m such a fan of Kate Forsyth. Her historical novels are inspired by fairy and folk tales, which is already enough to intrigue me. But even more than this, both Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl (which I adored [review here]) explore possible answers to mysteries in literary history. I think that’s just the coolest spark to start a novel.

Again, lit nerd here.

In the case of Bitter Greens, Forsyth looks to the tale of Rapunzel. She considers how Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, the 17th century French authoress who penned the version of Rapunzel we know and love, might’ve learned of the story. Because the tale, originally written in an Italian dialect, was not translated into a language accessible to de la Force until after her death.

In probing this quandary, Forsyth interweaves the stories of three women:

1) Charlotte-Rose, a member of the French court of Louis XIV imprisoned in a convent for her scandalous living;

2) Selena Leonelli, a Venetian courtesan and witch who imprisons a girl with long, lovely hair in a tower;

3) Margherita, who is imprisoned by a sorceress after her parents steal a handful of bitter greens from a witch’s garden.

Lushly written and skillfully woven, Bitter Greens has much to recommend it. Perhaps the most striking element is the scope and variety of history incorporated into the novel. At 491 pages, Bitter Greens is hardly a short novel… but it isn’t a particularly lengthy one, either. Yet Forsyth manages to beautifully unfold the decadence of Renaissance Venice, the ascetic sterility of a French convent, and the infamously gilded court of the Sun King in captivating fashion.

The textures and tastes, sights and sounds of these locales thoroughly immerse the reader. And the sheer volume of historical events captured–everything from the customs of courtesans to plague outbreaks to witch hunts and the Affair of the Poisons–was masterful. Especially because Forsyth avoided subjecting her readers to an “info dump,” instead weaving these elements naturally into her heroines’ tales.

Of course, not all Forsyth’s “heroines” are heroic, per se. But they are compelling. Inhabiting the role of sorceress, Selena Leonelli might’ve been at risk of becoming a stock villainess. But although she is convincingly diabolical, she is also portrayed as a figure whose movement toward darkness is occasioned by a tragedy with which the reader can’t help sympathizing. In the end, Forsyth’s manages to give all three of her protagonists tales that hook the reader as their layered narratives slowly intertwine.

My one small contention with Bitter Greens came at the novel’s close. While the bulk of the book is intricately, carefully written, the dénouement of the tale occurs a bit fast for my taste. I’m trying to skirt around spoilers here, so I’ll only say that the story’s final redemption seems a touch abrupt, and perhaps heavy-handed. Nevertheless, the substance of the conclusion was satisfying, and offered hope as a beautiful contrast to the novel’s darker themes.

For those interested in historical fiction, fairytale retellings, or stories that examine literary history, Bitter Greens is a solid read. Rooting her tale in the lives of three enchanting heroines, framing it against beautifully-researched historical settings, and interweaving a thread of magic throughout, Forsyth creates an atmospheric novel worthy of its designation as a Library Journal Best Book of 2014: Historical Fiction.

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