So this is my first official 2017 read – my other reviews this week have been of books I actually read the last week of December. It was quite the book to start things with – almost 500 pages of me not being completely convinced that I liked the book. In the end, a pretty solid 3/5 read for me, although this book had an extremely satisfying ending, so that boosted it up to a 3.5.
Bitter Greens is several stories in one. The first story is that of Charlotte-Rose, in late 1600’s France. She tells her story in first person, and at the beginning of the book, she has been exiled from court and sent to a poor convent, where things are pretty miserable. There, she meets one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina. This sister begins to tell Charlotte-Rose a story about a young girl a hundred years earlier who lived in Italy, who was kidnapped by a witch and imprisoned in a tower. And then, part way through that story, we start also getting the perspective of the witch as well.
Despite the multiple layers, each story was so distinct that I didn’t have any trouble telling them apart. And Forsyth would usually spend a few chapters with one character before switching to another, so we got each of the different stories in large chunks. Charlotte-Rose was telling her own story in first person, both what was currently happening to her in the convent, and about different episodes in her past that led to her being exiled there. Seraphina’s Rapunzel tale was told in third person, which made sense, but I was confused because the witch’s story was being told in first person. The Rapunzel story felt natural because we knew where it was coming from – Charlotte-Rose is hearing it from Seraphina – but where was the witch’s perspective coming from? It added a good layer to the overall story, but felt a little awkward.
This was another story that just sort of assumed that magic and witches and whatnot are real things that happen. And, just like when I read The Shapeshifters, I found myself completely accepting Forsyth’s version of history – that a spell and bathing in blood could make a woman stay young; that a curse and some hair and a bat’s wing could force a man to desire you; that you could torment a man with a curse and make him die from the terror of his own dreams.
There were a lot of things about this book that I liked. The setting is done very well. The terror and uncertainty of all three of the time periods really came across, especially in France when only Catholicism is legal and everyone must join the church or die.
Charlotte-Rose and the Rapunzel character (Margherita in this story) were likable and tangible. I also appreciated how Forsyth even managed to make the witch into not exactly a sympathetic character, but one whose perspective you could at least understand. Charlotte-Rose is based on a real person as well, and Forsyth gives us some extra information – just enough – at the beginning and end of the book.
However, the problem was that this book was basically about sex, the repression of women, and the way that those repressed women can use sex to control the men around them. All the sex got very old very quickly, and there was a lot of it. I found myself flipping pages frequently looking for the next actual bit of the story. Everyone was a whore, or related to a whore, or acted like a whore (by their standards, not mine). And like I get the fact that at these various time periods there weren’t really any options for women except for marriage, a convent, or prostitution, but still. It felt like I was being beat over the head with this fact on every page as the women bemoaned their lack of choices, and then went on to continue manipulating the men in their lives by giving or withholding sex. I just was totally over all the descriptions of sex. I really feel like I can walk into a room without being overcome with lust for someone in said room, but that didn’t seem like something that ever happened to one of Forsyth’s characters.
I’ve also realized that I just have an issue with the actual story of Rapunzel. In the story, Rapunzel is locked in the tower, immured from society and social knowledge. When the prince starts hanging out with her, he has sex with her despite the fact that she doesn’t really know anything about it or what it means or that it leads to babies, and that’s just really creepy to me. This book was the same, and I don’t blame the book – it’s the original story that’s creepy! Actually, I felt like Forsyth handled it a little better than some, except for the fact for no reason that I could understand we also had to have this bit with Margherita having her first period and I’m not going to go into details here but I just never really want to hear about menstrual blood or people touching menstrual blood and I don’t understand why novels act like they have to get into the nitty gritty detail to prove that they’re serious about writing about women. I mean, please. So that was super weird.
But the ending! I dragged a bit through this book. It’s a bit of a chunk of a book and since I was terribly excited about it, I mostly left it sitting at my spot at the counter where we eat our meals, and would read it whenever I was eating. So it took me a few days to get through it and I was feeling fairly ambivalent towards everyone, assuming that Forsyth was going to do the traditional Novel thing and kill everyone off and/or leave them in hopeless misery for the rest of their lives. Instead, while they didn’t all necessarily get happy endings, they at least got logical and satisfying ones. I really liked the way that things came together in the end. I felt like all of the women in the story had changed and grown. And despite hundreds of pages of sex and sex being the only thing women can do, in the end it actually seemed like each of the main characters had grown past that, to find their true selves.
So as I said, a 3.5/5. This was pretty good historical fiction with intriguing characters, and if there had been about 80% less sex, I think this book would have received a 4/5, especially with the satisfactory ending. I heard about this book from both Sophie and Lady Fancifull, and I definitely recommend checking out their reviews as well.