by Carolyn Turgeon
Rapunzel lives in the forest with her adopted mother, an herbalist/witch known throughout the kingdom for her abilities to get rid of unwanted babies or create love spells to draw a husband back to his wife. The young woman is the greatest beauty in the land, and her long, golden hair has magical properties that allow her to access the thoughts and feelings of anyone who touches it. When the song of the king happens to find her, they instantly fall in love, and after one glorious afternoon together Rapunzel is convinced they belong together. The prince, however, returns home and marries the woman he is betrothed to, while back in the forest Rapunzel carries his son in her womb. However, after a few years the prince – now a king – loses his wife, and he seeks out Rapunzel once more. Their love is as strong as ever, and she happily agrees, vowing to become a great queen and stepmother to the prince's daughter...a beautiful, bright girl named Snow White.
The Fairest of Them All is quite enchanting. Based on two traditional fairy tales, it seamlessly combines the two stories into one narrative full of suspense and drama. Rapunzel is the narrator, and her growth from innocent nymph of the woods into a beautiful but kind-hearted stepmother and finally to reviled queen that demands Snow White's heart to devour is storytelling in its purest form. Turgeon really digs deep into the inherent darkness of fairy tales, and looks beyond the “happily ever after” to uncover what happens after the prince finally captures his princess.
This was done in a very realistic way. When Rapunzel arrives at the palace of the king for the wedding, she is shocked that he doesn't immediately greet her. As the days pass, she becomes aware that even though she's married her true love, he will often be away because of all the work he must do to keep the kingdom running. The longer they are together, the more the king's all-too-human side is revealed. His total lack of awareness that his peasants are starving shocks the new queen, and when he does nothing she tries to help them on her own. Likewise, when her king strays into the bed of another woman – as kings do – Rapunzel shuts him out completely. Perhaps true love can't conquer all, no matter what Disney tells us...
Although there is some magic in the story, most of it is easily dismissed as the clever use of herbs and plants. There are a few unexplainable magical elements, though – why Rapunzel's hair should grow to impossible lengths overnight, or how it absorbs the emotional state of anyone who touches it is a mystery. Likewise, the witch Mathena, Rapunzel's adopted mother, reveals that in her youth she transformed a man into a stag. So magic is definitely present throughout the story, but it isn't something used lightly or frequently.
Snow White isn't a saintly princess. When she's young, she's adorable, and she and Rapunzel are quite close. But as she grows older, she turns against her stepmother because she's angry that Rapunzel has shut the king out. She's also occasionally petulant and spoiled – a typical moody teenager. But she proves to be a resilient spirit who can survive the worst.
This is one of the best books I've read this year. It's a fantastic merging of two classic fairy tales, and as far from the Disney versions as you can get. The Fairest of Them All will cast a spell over its readers.
4.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo by F. G. Haghenbeck
2011: Rin-Ne Vol. 1 by Rumiko Takahashi
2010: The Age of Comfort by Joan DeJean
2009: 10 Comic Book Series You Need To Check Out, Part II
2008: Book Group Expo 2008: Day Two