Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reading in Retrospect: "Mirror, Mirror" by Gregory Maguire

This was the second book I read by Gregory Maguire. It's definitely different. The story is based on that of Snow White, but I would call it more of an alternate history than a retelling of the fairy tale. In fact, when I read the "teaser" for Mirror Mirror which I found at the end of my copy of Wicked, I'm not sure I even realized it was supposed to be the Snow White story.

After reading Wicked and seeing how Maguire’s treatment of the Wicked Witch of the West portrayed Elfaba as more kindhearted than wicked, merely masquerading as a witch, and not even really from the west, I assumed that in Mirror Mirror the allegedly wicked queen would really be a tragically maligned figure while Snow White would be the truly wicked one. (And, in fact, until finishing Mirror Mirror I assumed that the ugly stepsisters of Maguire's Cinderella retelling would really be beautiful, sweet and kind, and Cinderella would be a mean and thoughtless harpy, but Mirror Mirror caused me to revise my expectations.) Maguire may have explored the theme of fairy tale retellings through several books, but his methods are by no means formulaic.

In Maguire's version of Snow White, displaced Spaniard Vicente de Nevada and his motherless daughter Bianca (get it? that's White) have a small but comfortable Italian holding in Montefiore. Bianca’s mother and the love of Vicente’s life, Maria Ines, had died in childbirth in approximately 1494. Seven years later, although the residents of Montefiore have managed to avoid the civil unrest that swirls around them, destruction is visiting them in the form of the Borgias, Cesare and his sister (and sometime lover) Lucrezia.

Cesare forces Vicente to depart from Montefiore on a quest to obtain the one remaining branch of the Tree of Knowledge, leaving Montefiore (and thus, Bianca) under Cesare’s control. Vicente is compelled to obey this demand as he owes the holding of Montefiore to the Borgias. Over the next five years, Lucrezia is overcome with jealousy as she realizes that Bianca has unwittingly and unwillingly caught the eye of Cesare, so Lucrezia pays a young hunter to take Bianca into the woods and kill her.

Of course the hunter cannot complete the evil deed, and instead releases Bianca into the forest, where she is found by a group of strange stone creatures that are slowly evolving into dwarves. (That's one of the more bizarre aspects of this story, of which I’m not absolutely sure I grasped the point.) Another odd part of the story is the way time seems to slow down for Bianca while she is with the dwarves. She lies in a sort of a coma for perhaps 6 years. There is really no explanation for this passage of time (no poison, no illness) other than the fact that the stony beings she is with have a different concept of time from humans; nor is there any good explanation for why she finally wakes up.

This book is definitely a departure from the Disney version. I am sure that in this case I prefer the original story. Some of Grimm’s fairy tales can be grisly (in the case of the original Snow White story, Disney doesn't tell us that the wicked queen salts, cooks, and eats what she believes to be Snow White's heart, or that while Snow White and her prince were living happily ever after, the queen was punished with dancing in red-hot shoes until she fell down dead), but Maguire's retelling went beyond grisly. It was corrupt and perverted (though I understand that for some of you that may be a draw rather than a deterrent).

One great thing about the way Maguire told the Snow White story was how he stirred in actual historical figures. The Borgias fascinate me in the mesmerizing way of a poisonous snake. I'm not sure I can think of a more conniving and infamous family in all of history. Though their presence in a fairy tale can't be historically accurate, I'm convinced the portrayal of their tendencies and personalities was.

My biggest complaint about the book is that odd dreamlike quality I was frequently frustrated by in my own creative writing assignments when I was in grade school. So often when I was required to write a story I had trouble making it sound concrete and realistic, as when something you think you understand inexplicably morphs into another thing, or perhaps even disappears entirely. Much of this book was plagued by a similar problem. It may sound intriguing, but I saw this as a weakness in my own writing, and when I recognize it in a book I can't help but view it as a flaw.


Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I have yet to read these books, and I really don't know why! I have Wicked on my shelf right now. This one sounds a bit different, though? I'll bear your review in mind when I delve into this one!

Cozy Book Nook (Lesa) said...

Wicked and Ugly Stepsister weren't faves of mine so didn't plan to read more-- after your review, I definitely won't.

The Borgias' are intriguing-- they've cropped up as characters in several books I've read over the years. Seems like a later one indicated that they may have been maligned a bit in the historical record. My amnesia is kicking in because I don't recall which book it was...

Kristi said...

I don't deal well with preverted which is why I stopped reading Wicked. I enjoyed Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister but I don't think it was preverted. I read it a while ago so I may be wrong. I think I'll avoid this one. It doesn't sound like I would enjoy it.

Samuel Black said...

The Borgias are definitely maligned. Lucrezia in particular was really quite sweet - and she probably didn't sleep with her brother or her father. Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) was deeply corrupt but kind of likeable, while Cesare was an utterly ruthless but rather stylish gangster. And they didn't poison anybody. Generally, their methods were much less subtle.

There's a lavish new TV series on them coming out next year, though, which I imagine will recycle all the usual myths and clichés. If you want something closer to the truth, try Sarah Bradford's Cesare Borgia: His Life and Times.

Kathy said...

Natalie--I think you should give Wicked a try, and if you love it, get Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, too. But I think I would only recommend Mirror, Mirror if you just want to keep reading Maguire after that.

Which pretty much applies to you, too, Lesa and Kristi--if you didn't like Wicked, I don't think there's much hope for this one.

I probably won't bother with the TV series, but I have ordered a copy of Bradford's Cesare book . . . and I noticed she also wrote one about Lucrezia, so I ordered a copy of that too.