French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, she is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of bitter greens…
After Margherita’s father steals parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.
Locked away in a tower, Margherita sings in the hope that someone will hear her. One day, a young man does.
Award-winning author Kate Forsyth braids together the stories of Margherita, Selena, and Charlotte-Rose, the woman who penned Rapunzel as we now know it, to create what is a sumptuous historical novel, an enchanting fairy tale retelling, and a loving tribute to the imagination of one remarkable woman.
A Library Journal Best Book of 2014: Historical Fiction
I enjoyed this book immensely – it is probably more 4.5 stars than 4.
Forsyth explores the life of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, known to the Court of the Sun King as Dunamis, meaning strength in Greek, a play on her surname and on her strength of character.
In Bitter Greens, two tales are intertwined: Charlotte-Rose’s own story, told as a contemporaneous account of her life following her exile from the Court to convent and her recollection of certain episodes of her life at Court and as a child, and the story of La Bella Strega and Margherita, told to her by one of the nuns – a story which ultimately inspires Charlotte-Rose in more ways than one.
Charlotte-Rose, as imagined by Forsyth, feels the restrictions of life in the convent enormously, particularly when compared to her life at the Court, where she can wear beautiful clothes, speak when she wants and as she likes, and generally live in comfort and luxury. The novel commences as Charlotte-Rose enters the convent, so we see her moment of psychological shock very clearly. However, life in the convent gives her the opportunity to reflect on life outside, and it becomes more and more clear that life at Court had its own restrictions and frustrations for Charlotte-Rose and those around her. In particular, Charlotte-Rose could not enjoy the slightly less limited freedoms of a married woman: marriage was difficult as she had no dowry (until receiving a pension for abjuring the Huegenot creed), was said not to be a great beauty, was originally a Huegenot and, by the time she had money, was seen as too old.
The two sets of constraints – Court and convent – are then mirrored by the numerous restraints in the story of Margherita and La Bella Strega, the most obvious being Margherita’s confinement in the tower (ie the Rapunzel story).
The craftsmanship of this book is quite incredible. It is a work of beauty, clearly based on strong research. In exploring multiple concepts of restriction and restraint, it also allows its characters and readers to understand the meaning of freedom in various forms – and of responsibility and, to some extent, love.
Favourite scene: for pure absurdity, Charlotte-Rose dressing up as a dancing bear (and apparently, this really happened!). And that’s all I’ll say – if you want to know more, you will have to read the book for yourself.
This is a review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. You can see my full list of books here. You can find a full list of my reviews, and other posts relevant to the challenge, here.