Book Review: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Rating: ★★★★★

When I first took Bitter Greens in hand, I immediately assigned this brick-like tome to the ‘too long to read’ review pile. Before doing so, however, I briefly flipped open the first pages for a peek, as I am almost always tempted to do.

Fast forward two weeks later, I was agonisingly eking out each and every word in the final pages of this beautiful book, wishing it was thrice the size.

I’m not kidding. I want more. (Kate, are you listening?)

1666. Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force has always been a talker. A storyteller. She may not be the grandest beauty, but her striking presence, wit, intelligence and savoir faire (also heaving breast, long dark curls and exquisite fashion sense) make her an engaging and desirable ‘troubador’ in the court of Louis XIV – the Sun King.

A distant-second cousin to the King, Charlotte-Rose finds herself struggling to secure a husband at court. Her irreverence, Huguenot status (at a time when the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church, and indeed against the Crown, took a horrifying death toll) and attraction to beauty and magic, sees her become a target of social scandal, and eventually – a suspect in the period’s infamous hunt for witches.

Eventually, after much relatively harmless scandal, Charlotte-Rose is banished, at the ripe old age of 47, to a nunnery where she befriends a warm, golden-eyed nun who regales her with an astonishing tale – the tale of Rapunzel – or Petrosinella (meaning Little Parsley) – whose parents sold her to a witch for a handful of bitter greens.

Of course, there is much more to this story than meets the eye. There was no sale. There was no sell-out. Just a witch bewitched by the lure of everlasting youth – and a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This book, which follows three women – Charlotte-Rose, the witch or La Strega, and young Margherita, the girl who is imprisoned in a tower on the Rock of Manerba – is astonishing in its richness and detail. Interwoven with history, fantasy, breathtaking romance and magic, I became as bewitched as Petrosinella at the raw beauty of Bitter Greens.

Kate Forsyth travelled to Paris, Gascony, Venice and the Italian Lakes in search of inspiration for this novel, and she found it. The depth and scope of the research she undertook to pen this tome is quite mind-boggling and it’s clear this author – who is currently completing a doctorate in fairytale retellings – has an abiding passion for history and magic – a delicious and palpable combination.

Set over 200 years, this is a story of love at its outer reaches. It is a story of the power within – of woeful failure and glorious achievement. It is resplendent with human frailty, cruelty and beauty. If books were the notes of a violin, Bitter Greens would be the highest soaring note – the one that brings goosebumps to the skin and swells the heart with passion.

Forsyth’s language and skill for visual and emotional evocation is truly divine – and her cast of characters – both real and imagined – is like manna from heaven. It is an indulgent pleasure to read her beautifully-crafted words, and to be swept into another time and place – so willingly.

From the descriptions of flopping lace at the cuff of a French dandy to the fervent love scenes . . . from the exquisite visuals of the Italian mountains and dim canals of Venice to the debauched happenings of the Court of the Sun King. . . from heart-snagging romance to mouth-clutching deaths . . . from mesmerising musical meanderings to clandestine potions – this beautifully-balanced, immensely-satisfying novel has a plot as tightly woven and luscious as a 12th Century magic carpet.

And now, I shall clutch my silk handkerchief to my heaving bosom of woe at the sordid finality I feel upon finishing this book. And I shall throw down my hair and patiently await the next instalment. With the stunning creative license Forsyth has taken in the creation of this book – I can only begin to imagine the fairytale worlds that lie in wait of her fervently-scratching quill.

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