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Bitter greens by Kate Forsyth
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Bitter greens (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Kate Forsyth

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87None137,880 (4.37)16
alcarinqa's review
There’s something mesmerising about Kate’s writing, something that weaves together the true story of a wonderful woman with the mythology of Rapunzel so you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The books is set out as a story within a story around a memoir, and I am impressed with the clarity with which it is delivered.

I was sucked into the story literally from the first chapter: Charlotte-Rose is a powerful narrator with whom I sympathised with instantly. I found Margherita’s parts of the story wonderful as well - they are thrilling and bittersweet, but brilliantly written. I struggled with Selena’s section simply because I couldn’t imagine the difficulties in her life and the sacrifices she had to make simply to survive. These are three extremely powerful characters, each with their own trials and tribulations in life, linked through fate and magic and dark secrets across the ages.

I’ve seen many a book review which uses the words “lush prose” and am always mystified by the idea. But if there’s a book that has prose that can be described as such, it exists in Bitter Greens. The settings of the story are vivid and well researched: Kate has accurately captured the landscapes, cultures and ambiance of the cities she describes in her book.

Bitter Greens is a excellent piece of historical fiction, one of the best I’ve ever read, and Kate shows her mastery at writing across genres in this book. A book you definitely need to pick up and read if you get the chance!

You can read more of my reviews at Speculating on SpecFic. ( )
  alcarinqa | Apr 18, 2012 |
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4.5 stars only cos I felt a little disoriented in the middle of the book when I realized I knew most of the things that were to happen simply because Charlotte- Rose had already mentioned them before.
But other than that, sheer brilliance. Charlotte, Selena and Margherita are compelling narrators who leave you wondering what's going to happen. The book is filled with flawed but ultimately interesting characters and shines all the more for it. But I did notice that except for Lucio, there wasn't a single admirable male character. The men of the era were cruel and tempestuous. Pretty much like the women. A nobility thing, I guess. The history of Louis XIV's various mistresses was particularly dramatic and fun. Seventeenth century soap opera. A good read for anyone who loves historical fiction and Rapunzel. ( )
  ashpapoye | Jan 24, 2014 |
A thoroughly enjoyable novel, twisting backwards and forwards through time and through France and Italy to tell the story behind Rapunzel, and also the ups and downs of the life of the author of as she moves from Gascony to the French court, to exile in a convent. It also refers to the horrendous treatment of Huguenots both before and after the Edict of Nantes. It is an extremely interesting read ( )
  JanAyres | Jan 21, 2014 |
Bitter Greens is "Rapunzel" as historical fiction. Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a court fixture at Versailles under Louis XIV, has been exiled to an impoverished convent as punishment for some unknown misconduct. A strong woman who has been through a lot (she lost her mother as a child for being a Huguenot, was arrested for supposedly using black magic, and forcibly divorced from her husband against both their wills, among other things), Charlotte-Rose is miserable there. However, one of the sisters takes pity on her and takes her under her wing. Charlotte-Rose has always loved a good story, and the one Sister Seraphina tells is unlike any she had ever heard.

In late 15th century Venice, the girl Maria is born to her courtesan mother. After a series of tragedies in which her mother's patron kills her father and has her mother gang raped, she finds herself alone and seeking revenge. The witch Sybilla gives her the means to do so, and Maria, now Serena, flourishes as the muse of the great painter Titian. But inside, she is still a scared little girl, lost and alone, and these fears lead her to seek eternal youth and eventually a young girl named Margherita, whose mother craved bitter herbs during her pregnancy with tragic results.

Now known as Petrosinella, Margherita lives alone in a tower on Lake Garda, longing for a world she can only dream about with only the witch La Strega's visits to look forward too. Until one day, lured by her singing, a young man asks her to let down her hair . . .

Forsyth has a done a masterful job here, intertwining the sad stories of three strong women, who find themselves trapped in situations no one should ever face, and yet despite all the tragedy of their lives, ultimately the message is one of hope. I should add that Charlotte-Rose was a real person, whose version of "Rapunzel" is the one that we all know today. The world-building here is excellent and reads true, and the female leads are compelling. Over all, an extremely powerful book, with the intertwining stories supporting and strengthening one another instead of competing and splitting the narrative. I can't understand why it hasn't been published in the States yet. Highly, highly recommended. ( )
1 vote inge87 | Sep 13, 2013 |
Review originally published on my blog: AWordsWorth.blogspot.com
Book provided by publisher for review.

Bitter Greens is an intricate retelling of Rapunzel's story, weaving it into a historical context that makes the familiar tradition live and breathe in unexpected ways. This is a fairytale for adults and historical fiction lovers.

Charlotte-Rose has been exiled from the court of the Sun King, sentenced to finish out her days in a nunnery after losing the favor of Louis XIV. Fighting violently against her new life, Charlotte-Rose finds she can no longer ignore her memories or run from her past. Her story is one of heartache and lost love, missed opportunities and the fickle gaiety of court. It's lush and extravagant, yet also threadbare and built upon a fragile base of shifting allegiances. At the nunnery, Charlotte-Rose meets a nun - Sœur Seraphina - who extends a hand of mercy and friendship, and offers a welcome distraction from her troubles. The story Sœur Seraphina tells is a strangely fascinating one to Charlotte-Rose, about a beautiful young Venetian girl, Margherita, stolen from her parents by a strega - a witch - and locked away in a convent. When the strega comes back for Margherita (whom she calls Petrisonella), she whisks her away to a remote tower, sewing a strange, abnormally long collection of hair into Margherita's own bronze locks. And so begins the Rapunzel story.

Forsyth does a masterful job of weaving Margherita's story into that of Charlotte-Rose, even working in a piece that addresses the history of the strega - Selena - who has a fascinating story of her own. Rich in historical detail and intricately-fleshed out characters, Bitter Greens gives new insight into several different historical periods, and is a testament to the power of Love. It's a beautiful retelling of a classic fairytale, with raw, rough emotions and just enough "harsh reality" to make the story strong, believable. The connections between the three, stunningly different women -- it's masterfully written. Worth the wait. ( )
  RivkaBelle | Jun 24, 2013 |
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.

http://samstillreading.wordpress.com ( )
  birdsam0610 | Apr 28, 2013 |
I feel kind of terrible writing this review because this book is awesome ... and not available in the U.S. (It is available in the UK.) As usual, with a book I love this much, I'm having a hard time writing a coherent review. I really ought to just do a video review so I can wave my hands and make excited noises -- that'd probably convey more.

I'm a sucker for a fairy tale retold, especially when they're placed in a historical era, marrying 'real' with 'fantasy'. In this case, the fairy tale is Rapunzel, and the historical eras are 17th century France and 16th century Venice. Told in a story-within-a-story style, Forsyth manages to write a wonderfully solid historical novel with all the details I like -- customs, costumes, and characters -- as well as a fairy tale fantasy that resonates and delights. Shifting between three perspectives, this brick of a novel (about 500 pages) had me hanging on every word, literally, and I was lugging this thing with me everywhere and reading it with every free second.

Opening in late 17th century France, the novel focuses first on Charlotte-Rose de la Force, a witty noblewoman banished to a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV. There, the woman once bedecked in jewels and luxurious fabrics finds herself stripped of her belongings (including her writing implements), head shorn, condemned to lowly tasks. When a nun takes Charlotte-Rose under her wing, she enchants the Frenchwoman with a tale from her own life, and the story shifts to Renaissance Venice. One of Titian's muses, Selena Leonelli, has taken to witchcraft to preserve her youth, and when a neighbor steals greens from her yard, the witch takes their Margherita for use in her own dark magic.

De La Force is the real life author of a Rapunzel variation, and Forsyth's novel guesses at how this Frenchwoman might have heard of the Venetian original. Using the Venetian motifs in her own version, Forsyth mixes magic and history, and comes up with a delicious and heartbreaking treat.

Forsyth's writing is evocative and pretty without feeling heavy or ornate; she conveys a sense of time and place without the dreaded infodump. What I appreciated, She also doesn't mince words about the way women were treated in these eras -- she creates strong heroines who are quite real but don't reek of anachronism.

Like others on this tour, I'm totally unwilling to part with my copy of this book. I had hoped to offer a giveaway but Book Depository doesn't have this one available yet. Keep your eye out -- if you like fairy tales, French history, and escapist historical fiction, you'll want this novel. ( )
  unabridgedchick | Mar 20, 2013 |
Fairytale, historical fiction, great read ( )
  siri51 | Nov 7, 2012 |
Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is essentially the story of Rapunzel, a children's story we all think we know pretty well. However in the hands of Australian author Kate Forsyth - who is currently undertaking a Doctorate in fairytale retellings - the story is told anew and adult readers are in for an absolute treat!

Early on, we meet Margherita, a young girl living with her parents on their modest income until she is cruelly snatched away by a witch for payment on a promise made by her father a long time ago.

Charlotte-Rose de la Force is living at court in Versailles, France until she falls out of favour with the Sun King Louis XIV and is sent to a nunnery. Always writing stories, Charlotte-Rose is keen to listen to an old tale from one of the nuns about a young girl sold for a handful of bitter greens.

La Strega Bella is the witch who locked Rapunzel in the tower and we are given a first person peek at what drove her to those extremes. The reader is taken back to her time as a young girl to find out what drove her towards the dangerous world of dark magic.

Three lives, three women all interconnected with elements of historical fiction combined with fairytale and magic make for an enchanting and compelling read and I was glued from the first few pages. Even the cover is enticing, and I knew by page 50 that Bitter Greens was going to be a 5 star read for me and I relished every page.

The novel is on the darker side of fairytale, so don't be expecting shades of Disney or be surprised when the plague comes knocking. Oh, and saucy too! The final third of the novel is quite tantalising - let me tell you - so be prepared ;-)

Finally, I recommend Bitter Greens to readers who enjoy historical fiction, fairytales and those who enjoy stories with passion, love, hardship, revenge and redemption. ( )
1 vote Carpe_Librum | Sep 19, 2012 |
Fairytale retellings are many things. Enchanting, heart-warming, romantic. But they are very rarely surprising. After all, any passing six-year-old could give you a pretty accurate account of what happens to Rapunzel. (In case your memory needs jogging it begins with “Once upon a time” and ends with “Happily ever after”.)

But when it comes to fairytale retellings it’s not so much about what happens in the story, it’s how the story is told. And in the case of Bitter Greens, it is even more than that.

This isn’t just a simple retelling. This is the story behind the story of Rapunzel, as well as the story within the story of Rapunzel. On the one hand, it is a richly imagined reworking of a familiar fairytale. On the other, it is a meticulously researched biography disguised as historical fiction. It’s a story spanning two centuries and weaving together the lives of three women.

It begins in 17th century France with Mademoiselle Charlotte-Rose de la Force, an aristocrat at the court of Louis XIV, reluctantly bidding farewell to Versailles. Her scandalous behaviour has landed her in trouble with the king, and Charlotte-Rose is banished to a convent. Life there is intolerable until she is befriended by a kindly old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl called Margherita.

A hundred years earlier, Margherita’s father steals a handful of bitter greens - parsley, wintercress and rapunzel - from the walled garden of the sorceress, La Strega. The witch catches him and they have to agree to give up their daughter when she turns seven to save him from having both hands cut off.
La Strega imprisons the young Margherita in an isolated tower, and weaves the hair of previous captives into a braid. Once a month, La Strega visits the tower to drink the maiden’s blood – the secret of her long life and beauty. Margherita must lower her braid to bring the witch up to the tower – but eventually someone else discovers the tower and the ladder of hair.

The third storyline follows the life of Selena Leonelli. Selena’s story takes place in the sumptuous and seductive world of Renaissance Venice. Selena is a renowned beauty, muse to the famous artist Tiziano. Less well known is the fact that she is a sorceress – in fact, La Strega. Though she is the villain of the tale, she is not your typical “wicked witch” and is actually a surprisingly complicated and sympathetic character.
The stories of Charlotte-Rose, Margherita and Selena are skillfully woven together to create a captivating blend of history and fantasy. And there’s a really surprising twist in the end that I simply didn’t see coming.

Here we have all the elements of the familiar fairytale but told in a very compelling and realistic way. Like in all fairytales, there is magic involved. But it is an artful and believable brand of magic, so subtle as to almost escape notice. And naturally there is also a swoon-worthy romance, the kind of fairytale romance that must overcome countless obstacles before you get to the “happily ever after”.

There actually was a gentlewoman at the Sun King’s court by the name of Charlotte-Rose de la Force, who was banished to a convent. While there, she wrote a collection of fairytales, which included a story called Persinette (Parsley) about a girl held captive in a tower. Hers was not the first version of the story, which has been told as far back, apparently, as 10th-century Persia.

And for those of you who think they don’t have time for fairytales? Yes, Rapunzel is an old story – and you have almost certainly heard it before. Trust me, though, you’ve never heard it told quite like this. ( )
  Jawin | Jun 9, 2012 |
There’s something mesmerising about Kate’s writing, something that weaves together the true story of a wonderful woman with the mythology of Rapunzel so you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. The books is set out as a story within a story around a memoir, and I am impressed with the clarity with which it is delivered.

I was sucked into the story literally from the first chapter: Charlotte-Rose is a powerful narrator with whom I sympathised with instantly. I found Margherita’s parts of the story wonderful as well - they are thrilling and bittersweet, but brilliantly written. I struggled with Selena’s section simply because I couldn’t imagine the difficulties in her life and the sacrifices she had to make simply to survive. These are three extremely powerful characters, each with their own trials and tribulations in life, linked through fate and magic and dark secrets across the ages.

I’ve seen many a book review which uses the words “lush prose” and am always mystified by the idea. But if there’s a book that has prose that can be described as such, it exists in Bitter Greens. The settings of the story are vivid and well researched: Kate has accurately captured the landscapes, cultures and ambiance of the cities she describes in her book.

Bitter Greens is a excellent piece of historical fiction, one of the best I’ve ever read, and Kate shows her mastery at writing across genres in this book. A book you definitely need to pick up and read if you get the chance!

You can read more of my reviews at Speculating on SpecFic. ( )
  alcarinqa | Apr 18, 2012 |
In Bitter Greens, Forsyth weaves together the narratives of Rapunzel, the author of the fairy tale, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force and the courtesan sorceress, 'La Strega Bella', Selena Leonelli, against the intriguing backdrop of seventeenth century Europe, from the court of Versailles presided over by the Sun King, Louis XIV to a cloistered stone convent. Bitter Greens is a mesmerising tale blending history, fantasy and adventure in a remarkable story.

Charlotte-Rose de Camont de la Force, Forsyth reveals in the Afterword, was the author of 'Persinette' a fairy tale written while she was in exile at a French convent. 'Persinette', meaning Little Parsley, is the basis for the tale we know as Rapunzel. Bitter Greens opens as Charlotte-Rose is settling into the Abbey, miserable and lamenting her banishment from the Royal Court. There is little of anything in the austere convent, little food, little warmth and little kindness. Only Soeur (Sister) Seraphina reaches out to Charlotte-Rose and begins to tell her a story of a little girl named Margherita, affectionately called Persinette by her parents.
As the story of Bitter Greens unfolds, perspective switches between that of Charlotte-Rose who recalls the circumstances that have led her to the Abbey, and the tale of Margherita, (as told by Sister Seraphina) taken from her parents and imprisioned in a tower. Forsyth then introduces Selena Leonelli, who shares her own tale of a life as the cherished and beautiful daughter of a courtesan, whose brutal downfall and death leads Selena to swear vengeance. Apprenticed to a witch, Wise Sibillia, Selena learns the dark magic of lust, desire and revenge and becomes known as La Strega Bella - The Beautiful Witch. These complex women are extraordinary characters, both a product of, and ahead of, their times. Their stories are fascinating and though there are many differences between them, there are also similarities, not the least being the way in which as women, Charlotte-Rose, Selena and Margherita are at the mercy of society.
Bitter Greens is a dark story, shying away from the Disney versions of fairy tales and princesses. In this Rapunzel tale, Margherita is ripped screaming from her parents arms and is kept company in the tower by the skeletons of the girls who came before her. Even though you are familiar with the tale the grim circumstance and differences to the sanitised tale maintain suspense. It is however, also a story of redemption and love as promised.
With authentic and compelling detail Forsyth explores the excesses of Versailles, often a scene of debauchery and treachery. Charlotte-Rose, as a cousin to the King, is admitted to the court at sixteen but her bright mind and rebellious spirit is as often derided as it is feted. The elaborate hierarchy and capricious politics often determined by King Louis' current fancy are interesting. The elegant costumes of the Court hide ignorance and indifferent brutality. Of the streets, Forsyth writes of casual violence, poverty, religious purges and the scourge that is the plague. While I can't attest to the historical accuracy of the author's imaginings the Bitter Greens is rich with vibrant landscape and scenes.

The author's first adult tale after a successful publishing career in young adult fantasy, Bitter Greens is a stunning novel. I was spell bound from beginning to end by the lush prose, magnificent characters and intriguing story. I will be recommending Bitter Greens to everyone. ( )
  shelleyraec | Apr 17, 2012 |
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