I’d been hearing how wonderful Bitter Greens is and I felt compelled to read it myself. I am so glad I did.
Bitter Greens tells the interwoven tale of 3 women, Margherita, Selena and Charlotte-Rose. Charlotte-Rose de la Force, the quick witted and quick-tongued lady of the court, has told one too many scandalous tales and had one too many scandalous love affairs, and as such, has been banished to a convent by her cousin, the King. Convinced she will be returned once she writes a letter to the King’s daughters, she is unable to settle into the austere life at the nunnery. Forced to give up her pretty dresses and worse, her writing implements, Charlotte-Rose refuses to submit to the rigours of nun life. Soeur Seraphina takes pity on Charlotte-Rose and has Charlotte-Rose join her in the garden for her work. Here, Soeur Seraphina tells the tale of Margherita, a girl sold by her parents to the Venetian courtesan and witch Selena Leonelli, known as La Strega Bella, for a handful of bitter greens – parsley, watercress and rapunzel. Margherita is the original Rapunzel, trapped by Selena in a tower where monthly she is forced to surrender three drops of blood in order to keep Selena young and beautiful. She has the hair of 13 other girls who Selena used, sewn onto her own hair, making a rope long enough for Selena to climb up each month.
This wonderfully evocative historical fiction effortlessly weaves life in 16th century Venice and 17th century France with magic and reality. The fantastical stories of the women are heavily grounded in well-researched history which makes the magical elements seem plausible. Charlotte-Rose, the main narrator of the novel, is also the most well-drawn. Occasionally her self-deprecation about her beauty jibes with her self-love of her immense intellect, but I found her to be a captivating character. She was also a real historical person, known for being the first to retell a Rapunzel story while at a convent. Parts of her life seem unreal yet are known facts, such as disguising herself as a bear to rescue her lover. Margherita is first introduced as a small child. When the witch appears to claim her according to the deal struck with her parents, she is confused. First placed in a convent, she is then taken to the tower. Here Margherita repeats three phrases to herself to cope with the years of captivity: “My name is Margherita. My parents loved me. One day I will escape.” She has a naivety that goes beyond just her youth, as becomes apparent after her “prince” arrives in the tower. This version of Rapunzel goes beyond that of the witch locking up Rapunzel who then gets rescued by her prince, is so richly described, and has such heartbreak behind the captivity’s necessity. Selena’s tale was for me the least interesting and lacked the emotional punch of the other two. I did, however, love where her story ended.
I found this a beautiful story, well written and intriguing. Forsyth’s historical details are excellent and her characters are wonderful. Bitter Greens is a novel of three strong, intelligent and independent women who learn to depend on themselves and not on men.
I loved it.