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By Carolyn Turgeon. Touchstone. 288 pages. $15
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Carolyn Turgeon has been re-imagining fairy tales for years, and has won acclaim for doing so. But her latest attempt, “The Fairest of Them All,” is so poorly told it’s hard to understand how anyone could enjoy it.
The book’s premise is unusual and full of potential. It is the story of Snow White, told from the perspective of her stepmother, Rapunzel, heroine of her own fairy tale. We all know how Snow White ends: with the death of her evil, scheming stepmother, a persona so at odds with Rapunzel’s traditional sweetness and innocence that some epic personality twists and character development must be in the works.
Sadly, that is not the case. Rapunzel starts the novel as a naive 17-year-old witch who falls in love with Prince Josef the second she sees him. He is captivated by her beauty and does not care that she is named after a type of lettuce. Within a few pages, he has climbed her golden hair, spent a passionate night with her, and she’s pregnant.
Rapunzel’s hair is magical; when it brushes against people, she knows all their thoughts and emotions. Josef is so preoccupied with her that his upcoming wedding apparently doesn’t cross his mind. After he leaves the tower, Rapunzel doesn’t hear from him for years. In the meantime, she gives birth to a stillborn, deformed son. Josef marries, becomes king and then a father when Snow White is born.
When Snow White’s mother dies—an event in which Rapunzel is not innocent — Josef immediately goes looking for her, and they get married about 20 seconds later. Here’s where the book is supposed to get really good. Turgeon spends a lot of time building up the loving relationship between Rapunzel and Snow White. Their falling out surely must be wrenching — but it’s not. Rapunzel gets mad because she catches Josef with other women, Snow White gets mad because Rapunzel openly shuns her father, and then Rapunzel gets mad because her mirror says Snow White is prettier.
The beauty contest doesn’t make any sense in this book. People either don’t like Rapunzel because she’s a witch, which has nothing to do with beauty; or they do because she cares about the common folk, which also has nothing to do with beauty. Her beauty enchants Josef, but Snow White’s shouldn’t diminish that. There’s no logical reason why two beautiful women shouldn’t co-exist in one castle.
There is an illogical reason: Ten years ago, Rapunzel’s guardian told her that her beauty is her greatest asset. Even though people like or dislike her despite it, Rapunzel believes her guardian’s words well into her 20s. Apparently nothing in that decade caused her to question them — not her helping the villagers, parenting Snow White, efforts to get pregnant, even exposure to a brand-new religion. None of that made her think, “Hey, maybe there’s more to life than being pretty, which isn’t doing much for me right now.” Rapunzel is dim.
Rapunzel’s biggest problem is that she doesn’t mature. Turgeon shoehorns in references to her heartache and lost son every now and then, but there’s no sense these life-changing events do in fact change Rapunzel’s outlook. She’s in her 30s by the end of the book, but still has the voice and aura of a teenager.
Turgeon kills the promise her book had when she deviates from the story of Snow White toward the end. Despite her flourishes, she had by this point tracked the original tale quite well: the death of the queen; the appearance of the stepmother who turns out to be wicked, however feebly so; the huntsman taking the girl into the woods; the consumption of a heart.
The seven dwarves, however, turn out to be seven wicked bandits who make just a brief appearance. The book’s ending — the most satisfying part of any fairy tale — is of Turgeon’s invention and a complete letdown.
We dismiss fairy tales as children’s fare, but many are dark and gruesome, Snow White in particular. After all, her stepmother wants to eat her heart, tries to murder her and meets an unpleasant death herself. “The Fairest of Them All” is an awful, sanitized retelling. Young adults, even young teens, are used to sophisticated plots and can handle dark themes. This book doesn’t meet those expectations.
It is the most disappointing of them all.
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