Bitter Greens is part historical fiction, part fairytale. The story opens with Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who has just been banished from the Court at Versailles after a series of scandals and rumours. She arrives at a convent, where she is stripped of her fine clothes and set to work. After a while, Charlotte-Rose is befriended by an older nun, Souer Seraphina, who tells her the story of a young pregnant girl who once visited a witch. During her pregnancy she became desperate for the taste of the bitter herb Rapunzel, leading her husband, a Venetian mask-maker, to steal some from the home of Selena Leonelli. The child, Margherita, grew up only to be stolen away by Selena and imprisoned in a tower. Told in first person, the story switches between the three women (Charlotte-Rose, Margherita and Selena) and places the Rapunzel fairytale firmly in a time and place.
I loved Bitter Greens! I was expecting to enjoy it (I like both fairytales and historical fiction), but I was so impressed with the way Forsyth knitted the two genres together. The fairytale/magical elements were seamlessly woven into the historical plot so subtly that they seemed almost ordinary. Forsyth put a spin on some of the famous elements of the fairy tale so that they fit in with the historical story she wanted to tell. For example, when Margherita is imprisoned, she has the hair of those who came before her plaited into her own, to make her supernaturally long braid. The first time Selena climbs up it, Margerita's pain is vividly described and this added just enough to make it seem like a human story, rather than just a fairy tale. Forsyth isn't constrained by the original story, but instead broadens it to include politics, love, gender issues and the fear of witchcraft.
Another thing I enjoyed was the Venetian setting. I read a few books set in Venice for the 'Venice in February' challenge last year (The Book of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric being my favourite) and Forsyth managed to portray a charming Venice with a darker side too. The carnevale is prominent and the dingy romance of the setting suited the magical elements of the story. All three characters were a product of their time and there were no jarring slips into modern thought or action.
Bitter Greens is a chunky book but well worth reading. The three perspectives weave in and out of each other and Forsyth goes from making you feel utter sympathy for imprisoned Margherita, to giving you an understand of Selena, in just a few chapters. I'm still thinking about it a week after finishing it. Bitter Greens is the first book I've read by Forsyth, but I will definitely be looking out for more.
Source: Review copy via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
First Published: Feb 2013 (in the UK)
Score: 4.5 out of 5