Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is an enchanting read. Forsyth mixes characters based on historical people with fable.
The real life Charlotte-Rose de La Force wrote the Rapunzel or “Persinette” story which was adapted by the brothers Grimm.
In this fictionalized version of events, Charlotte hears the tale from Soeur Seraphina, her only friend at the convent where she is imprisoned.
Like a master tapestry weaver, Forsyth weaves the stories of the three women: Charlotte, Margherita, and and Maria, the “strega bella,” who renames herself Selena.
Most readers are familiar with the Rapunzel story but Forsyth revitalizes it. Selena kidnaps Margherita from her home in Venice and entraps her in a high watchtower in Manerba.
In this is a multi-faceted story, Forsyth also gives us the witch’s story. When her mother is horribly mistreated, Maria learns what injustice feels like and it marks the beginning of her transformation into wickedness.
Maria who renames herself Selena acquires a lover, Tiziano, whose paintings immortalize her. Forsyth has some fun here with Titian, imagining that Selena is Titian’s Venus.
Selena stays young because she drinks the blood of the young red-headed girls she has kept in the tower. Tizano, on the other hand, sinks into old age.
Forsyth switches back and forth easily from Margherita and Selena’s story in Italy to Charlotte de la Force’s adventures in France during the reign of the sun King.
After losing the King’s favor, Charlotte determines to marry a Marquis and pays a witch for a love spell. She lands in prison, but upon release, she chooses to marry for love.
What is remarkable is the way all of the women’s lives parallel each other. All face terrible choices and are forced to choose between their happiness or safety.
A sweeping and sensual drama, Bitter Greens is one of the best historical novels of 2014.
For more information about this novel and about Kate Forsyth, see Sarah Johnson’s interview of Forsyth in Johnson’s blog, Reading the Past.