Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: While Beauty Slept

While Beauty Slept
By Elizabeth Blackwell
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, February 2014

About the Book

Historical fiction at its best—The Brothers Grimm meets The Thirteenth Tale.

I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told.

And so begins Elise Dalriss’s story. When she hears her great-granddaughter recount a minstrel’s tale about a beautiful princess asleep in a tower, it pushes open a door to the past, a door Elise has long kept locked. For Elise was the companion to the real princess who slumbered—and she is the only one left who knows what actually happened so many years ago. Her story unveils a labyrinth where secrets connect to an inconceivable evil. As only Elise understands all too well, the truth is no fairy tale.

My Review

Does true love conquer all? Did a magic spell enchant an entire castle and was Beauty really saved by her prince’s kiss?

Blackwell’s debut novel follows Elise, a country girl whose late mother urged her to escape the drudgery of farm life and seek employment at the castle as she herself did long before Elise’s birth. To escape the brutality of her stepfather, Elise does just that, hoping to better her desperate situation by striving for a respectable position. At the castle, Elise’s loyalty and discretion ensure that she climbs the ladder, all the way to a position as the queen’s personal attendant. From that vantage point, Elise witnesses the king and queen’s desperation to have a child and the “deal with the devil” the queen makes with Millicent, the king’s aunt, to get what she wants.

This tale is an irresistible treat—an adult retelling for all those who loved Disney’s Sleeping Beauty as children. I confess it was, and continues to be, my favorite Disney fairytale of all-time. In keeping with her “adult fairytale”, Blackwell uses herbal medicine rather than healing spells, threats and manipulation rather than curses, and war and disease rather than sorcery. I do wish there was more detail about Flora’s tutoring of Elise. I think the knowledge Flora passes to Elise would have added a great dimension to the tale, but the ending, if bittersweet, is a finish worthy of this grown up tale.

This represents the best of both worlds: a fairytale with all the imaginative aspects we expect, but with a more mature, grounded telling. This is one more chance to step into that fantasy world and revisit a beloved story, this time from a grown-up’s perspective.

Rebecca Henderson Palmer

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