Book Review: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Having heard nothing but praise for this book and being a pretty huge fan of historical fiction, I hoped Bitter Greens would work its magic on me. But not to keep readers in suspense, that was certainly not the case. At times I saw the potential for an excellent novel shining through, but for the most part I was extremely underwhelmed by Kate Forsyth’s efforts.

The problem with fairytales is that they are stories being told—not stories being shown or experienced. Writers of fairytales don’t go into depth with characterization and don’t spend time in-scene; these are summaries of peoples’ lives. I had hoped that Forsyth would be able to take the Rapunzel fairytale and expand upon it, giving it its own unique flavor, and while in some ways she did, she didn’t manage to shake off the ever-present flavor of telling. So many chapters in Bitter Greens were mere summaries of events, a style of storytelling that doesn’t lend itself to in-depth characterization or establishment of setting. I never once lost sight of the fact that the narrator was telling me these things, and it made for a very different experience that a book that immerses its reader into the text, where the reader can invest in the characters and root for their success.

I was, by and large, not particularly invested in the characters presented in Bitter Greens. The Rapunzel character herself was stock and two-dimensional, as was the reformed wicked witch. Charlotte-Rose’s story was the only section I tended to find interested, but it was so often summarized that it lacked in quality, and, additionally, it recounted many of the same events that I’d learned about previously in Sandra Gulland’s excellent The Shadow Queen. I’d desperately hoped, however, Forsyth would find a way to subvert the traditional Rapunzel fairytale, but to my disappointment she stayed unerringly true to the original, and after having previously read a historical-set Rapunzel spinoff with decidedly feminist themes, set during Charlemagne’s conquest, I couldn’t help but make the comparison, and it was Bitter Greens that came up lacking. It seems to me that I’ve read better novels dealing with the reign of Louis XIV and better Rapunzel retellings, and I was constantly bemoaning the author’s amateurish, messy storytelling. The story-within-a-story-within-a-story format was often clunky, and with incomplete characterization, I never found myself engaged by the text.

Additionally, Kate Forsyth’s prose is not good. It’s juvenile and sloppy and just doesn’t sound goodwhen you really think about it. The dialogue was often clunky and inconsistent, and the numerous sex scenes were honestly too ridiculous to be borne. For instance:

…a moist thwacking sound as the bed rocked and squeaked. “You’re all wet and ready for me. Or is that the juices of your lover? Should I thank him for preparing the way for me?”Kate Forsyth, Bitter Greens (emphasis mine)

At some point I just had to stop attempting to take the author’s prose seriously, because it was beyond laughable. I’ve honestly not even read such terrible sex scenes in a romance novel, and I’ve read hundreds of those. (Aside: why is it that historical fiction authors struggle so much with sex scenes? I’ve found that it’s a problem in this genre more than any other.)

I managed to finish Bitter Greens, but in all honestly I should have set it aside after the first few chapters, when I was so completely underwhelmed. Though I had hopes this book would improve, it never did—in many ways actually growing worse. For though the story is often good, I’m afraid that Kate Forsyth’s mediocre prose and storytelling did not cast her creativity in a good light.

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