Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

A quick rundown… How the fairy tale Rapunzel came about, told from the points of view of the writer, Rapunzel and the witch.

Strengths: Incredibly well researched and the stories of the three characters are interwoven really well.

Weaknesses: Took me a little time to get into (Louis XIV’s France is not my strongpoint!)

Why I read it: Heard Kate Forsyth speak and was intrigued by her research into the origin of Rapunzel

Pages: 576

Published: 2012

Publisher: Vintage

Setting: France and Italy

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Last month I went to hear Kate Forsyth speak as part of her national tour for the Get Reading! Programme. At the time, I hadn’t read very much by her, but I was a fan of her blog (she writes about all sorts of interesting things, go check it out at http://www.kateforsyth.com.au ). I’m really glad that I did listen to her speak about the writing process, her research and how she became a writer, in addition to meeting her and getting my copy of The Wild Girl signed. Not only was Kate informative, she is a very engaging speaker and I am full of admiration towards her. I particularly enjoyed listening to how she does her research, and I can tell you that the extensive time and effort she spends on it comes through in Bitter Greens. Kate has the ability to make dry ol’ history come to life and absolutely sparkle!

Readers of my blog and reviews would know that I’m not really a fan of science fiction and fantasy – my brain prefers cold hard facts or at least something to be plausible (which could be why I’m also a fan of Mythbusters).
Bitter Greens involves witchcraft, spells and (almost) immortal life – but I loved it! Kate has the ability to make the fantastical seem completely at ease with reality. If you think you know the fairy tale Rapunzel from your youth, think again. This story is so much richer, more involved and interesting than a girl with a long plait.

Bitter Greens opens with Charlotte-Rose de la Force (a fantastic name for a heroine- but what’s better is that she is a real person too) being sent against her will to a convent after offending the King of France, Louis XIV. Charlotte is not happy to be deprived of life at court and her husband, Charles. She rails against the ways of the nuns until one morning, Soeur Seraphina begins to tell her a story of a witch and a little girl.

Margherita is the girl locked in the tower. Previously happy with her parents, she is taken from them after Selena the witch extracts her payment for a handful of bitter greens. Renamed by Selena, she lives a life alone, except when Selena comes to take her blood as a youth elixir. Will her prince ever come?

We also find how Selena came to be the feared witch and courtesan La Strega Bella, famous throughout Venice for her beauty and witchcraft. A destitute youth means that Selena is determined never to be poor again, nor suffer the way her mother did.

Each character’s history and place in time is meticulously researched. Initially, I felt a bit lost with Charlotte’s story as I don’t know my French history very well, but I was soon comfortable with Kate’s glorious descriptions of the dresses, food and nuances of the royal court. I did feel sorry for Selena at times (even though I admired Margherita’s courage and ability to withstand imprisonment) and Kate makes a good case to show how Selena got to be where she ended up. The emotions run high at times between passionate love affairs (Charlotte does quite well for someone who claims not to be a beauty) and some incredibly cruel moments, such as the death of Selena’s mother. Kate has an incredible use of language that sets the scene, tone and characters clearly in my head. The story is fast paced and never boring.

One thing I remember Kate saying in her author talk was that she always promises a happy ending. I believe you will be delighted in how the story wraps up and eager to read more by Kate Forsyth.

I read this book as part of Reading Matters’ Australian Literature month. Please do take part if you have the chance, as 50 pence will be donated by Kimbofo to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

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