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By Madeleine E. Robins. Forge Books. 336 pages. $25.99
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Fairy tales often form the basis of plays, movies and other books. Here, the tale that inspired the Disney movie “Tangled” is the grounds for “Sold for Endless Rue.”
In Madeleine E. Robins’ retelling of the story of Rapunzel, the woman who takes her neighbors’ baby for her own is no witch but an accomplished doctor living in 13th-century Salerno, Italy. As a child, Laura fled the bandits who overran her village and found haven with Crescia, a healer. Once Laura learns all she can from her adoptive mother, Crescia sends the girl to the nearby Scuola to train as a physician. There Laura is seduced and abandoned by a fellow student, an experience that sours her on men and strengthens her resolve to be a successful medica.
When Laura discovers her neighbors’ connection to her former lover, and that the young husband has been stealing greens from her garden for his pregnant wife, she takes their firstborn daughter as compensation. Laura intends Bieta to become an even greater medica than herself, but the spirited girl has her own plans — which include a handsome fisherman — and will thwart Laura’s attempts to confine her.
Robins lays the groundwork for adult Laura’s ruthlessness and bitterness in the young girl, and although taking the baby does feel like a spurt of madness at odds with Laura’s personality, it is understandable, in a twisted way. Laura’s experience with men naturally affects her parenting, and this foundation of the conflict between her and Bieta is realistic.
What’s unrealistic are the key male characters in the first two-thirds of the book. Most of them are morally or mentally deficient in some way, and are very one-dimensional and undeveloped. It’s hard not to notice, and the novel wanders uncomfortably from “girl power” to “man scorn” territory. Luckily, Bieta’s fisherman — also underdeveloped but at least not malignant — brings some balance.
The novel is divided into three parts, each simply written. The pacing is off, however — the plot burns as slowly and steadily as a candle in the beginning and toward the end rushes and jumps around like a brush fire. Earlier contrivances in the novel are forgivable as Robins tries to slot her story in with Rapunzel’s, but the end, which is all her creation, is hard to take seriously.
And perhaps Robins intends for the book to be a deeper tale of love and relationships within three generations, but she doesn’t come close to accomplishing that. It’s a clever title, though.
However, like a fairy tale, “Sold for Endless Rue” has a charming, quaint coziness to it and is simple and straightforward in delivery. Robins stimulates the senses, describing the colors, sounds and smells of coastal Salerno and the countryside that surrounds it.
It’s a challenge to spin a story off another. “Sold for Endless Rue” is not without its pitfalls but is also not without its charms. It’s an easy, enjoyable read, a valiant effort that fleshes out an old fairy tale while retaining fairy tale qualities of its own.
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