Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: The Fairest of Them All by Carolyn Turgeon

I love classic fairy tales, and The Fairest of Them All is a fairy tale in the most classic sense. The author, Carolyn Turgeon, combines two familiar stories to spin a unique yarn, but this doesn't feel like a contrived retelling. The Fairest of Them All could have come straight from the Brother Grimm, because it's exactly what a fairy tale should be: It's sexy and visceral, intense and a little scary, and there is no saccharine Disney ending.

Best of all, it's built around a brilliant premise. Turgeon took a hard look at fairy tales, populated with beautiful maidens, jealously cruel middle-aged women, and wizened crones, and asked herself "What happens to the beautiful young fairy tale heroines who are so prized for their youth and beauty? When they grow up, what do they become?" In this story, Turgeon's Rapunzel grows up to become Snow White's wicked stepmother.

Take a moment to let that sink in. Poor, imprisoned Rapunzel grows up to be the jealous former beauty who demands an innocent child's heart. Isn't that brilliant?! As she tells the story, Turgeon drops tantalizing bits of information that create lots of questions, and I eagerly followed them all like breadcrumbs. How does Rapunzel go from innocence to bloodlust? What secret is the witch hiding from Rapunzel, and who are her true parents? What is the significance of the stag that Rapunzel shot in the woods, and why does the witch encourage Rapunzel to eat the dripping red flower that grew from the fallen stag's heart?

Turgeon's Rapunzel isn't a weak captive; she is a powerful sorceress and loves the witch as if she was her own mother. They have worked side by side since Rapunzel was a small child, and the witch has taught Rapunzel everything she knows about magic and healing. Together, they tend a magical garden and use the fruits of their labor to assist desperate women who covertly seek their help with straying lovers and sick children. The earthy descriptions of their verdant garden, well-stocked root cellar, and the beautiful but dangerous forest surrounding their home are some of my favorite passages in the book. Rapunzel's world is a gorgeous place, and I was happy to visit it.

Turgeon delves into personal, powerful emotions, especially when she describes full-body lust, a mother's grief for her stillborn child, and the rage of a spurned wife. It would have been so easy to veer into purple prose. But she uses straightforward language, nothing ridiculous or flowery, and that makes the emotions completely believable. As Rapunzel becomes more deranged, the first-person perspective made me squirm. I didn't want to be in her head! And that's not criticism; I consider that to be the mark of a very talented writer. If a book can't make me feel, then perhaps it isn't worth reading.

The Fairest of Them All, however, is well worth your time. It's intelligent, dark, and lush, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Turgeon's work. I have one final comment: The cover art is awful. Is that a Barbie head floating on a sea of glitter? I think it is, and I encourage you not to judge the book by its cover. Edit: I just received a very kind e-mail from Carolyn Turgeon. Squeeee! She says, "Yes. It is a Barbie head floating in a sea of glitter. Worst cover ever. Tried to fight it and lost!" Hehe, I'm so glad we're in accord.

1 comment:

  1. I was absolutely shocked by this book. It wasn't what I expected at all, but I loved it! The novel ties the stories of Rapunzel and Snow White together in one thrilling, seductive tale. I was totally absorbed and emotionally attached to the characters throughout the story. It's very sexual, and some of the violent parts are slightly graphic, but Carolyn Turgeon blew me away.

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