Nice mix of fairytale and historical fiction. This book tells the stories of three women, all unwilling to be meek and obliging as their societies or their guardians demand, and of how they strive to achieve agency and love.
In the best tradition of modern fairytale retellings the story is dark, angsty and, as you can imagine, the Rapunzel’s tale here is not after its bowdlerized version. The “bitter” part of the book's title is not just for decoration, either: there is physical and psychological violence aplenty (never too graphic), particularly against women. Consequently, although the book is nicely written and the story is interesting, some concepts were somehow uncomfortable.
What I liked is that the book is a page-turner, the story flows smoothly and the author did surely research the historical and geographical background, as stated in the acknowledgements. I was sold on the idea of a writer and her creation sharing the same pages and along with the motif of women and agency there are several other thought-provoking themes, like the terror of dying, of being forgotten, of not being loved.
This entanglement between the Rapunzel tale and its writer’s is very original but I failed to perceive the plotlines as a whole because they follow the life of truly different women. I think this very mingling of historical events and characters with magic and legends is both an asset and a liability since there are, as is appropriate, distinct kinds of storytelling involved and I don’t think the delivery of a cohesive picture succeeded.
The story which is the trait d'union between Charlotte-Rose de La Force and Rapunzel was very engrossing and my favorite part. All the protagonists are women who act consistently with the limits of their experiences and circumstances, they are not passive nor Mary Sues, and it felt quite accurate considering that, with different degrees of freedom granted by wealth and birth, only a few “safe” options were open to women of such centuries. The novel narrows them down to three and I find them reductive, howbeit probably not that far off the historical mark.
Unfortunately the shifting viewpoints and storytelling styles devised to fit both the fairytale and the historical fiction plots contributed to my detachment. Also, while I never disliked any of the protagonists I never felt involved but with one of them, and only in part: all the women here are totally ruled by emotion and not an ounce of logic. Moreover, my modern mind rooted in human rights and gender equality was kind of taxed trying to immerse in the thoughts (not actions) of the protagonists or to partake of their beliefs and cultures as presented in the narrative. On top of that a few plot holes and the rushed ending of one of the protagonists’ stories left me a bit perplexed, given the general quality of the book.
I know I’m being vague but my points strictly relate to the plot and the narration devices, I cannot say any more without spoiling.
Bottom line: this story didn’t work for me but I liked the idea.There are only three choices for women in this world that we live in. You can be a nun, or a wife, or a whore.