Banished from the court of Versailles for indiscretions which she hopes the Sun King will (eventually) forgive, Charlotte-Rose de la Force is confined to an austere convent. With her life turned upside down, she finds it difficult to adjust to her new life as a postulant. While she waits in vain for a response to one of her endless petitions to the King for mercy, one of the nuns, Sœur Seraphina, offers Charlotte-Rose comfort in the form of gardening and a fabulous tale…
A young Italian girl Margherita is fascinated by the notorious courtesan, Selena Leonellia, who lives next door. Margherita doesn’t quite understand why her mother is terrified of the stunningly beautiful woman. Eventually it comes out that Margherita’s father had stolen a handful of parsley, wintercress and rapunzel from the courtesan’s walled garden for his pregnant wife and to save himself, had made a dreadful promise.
We are also told about the courtesan’s back story, as first a waif on the streets, then the red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano. Called La Strega Bella, Selena somehow manages to stay forever young, fascinating her lovers over a period of more than 60 years. How does she stay so youthfully beautiful, and what does it have to do with Margherita?
Despite the familiar forms and tropes of the story which intermingles fact with fiction (Charlotte-Rose de la Force actually did write a story called Persinette (Parsley) which we know better as Rapunzel while she was banished to a convent), Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is not your average fractured fairytale retelling.
Forsyth weaves the stories of the three women, Charlotte-Rose, Margherita and Selena cohesively together in often surprising — and sometimes dark — ways. There is a big reveal towards the end that I truly did not see coming and which gives added resonance and depth to the story.
Read and enjoy.
Program and Communications Manager