Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire
I love Gregory Maguire’s Wicked. I think it’s absolutely amazing–the subtle structure is fantastic, and I never get tired of rereading it. Every time I see a new (to me) Gregory Maguire novel, I want to read it, trying to capture the same sort of magic that happens when I read Wicked.
I keep getting disappointed.
Mirror Mirror takes the fairy tale of Snow White and places it firmly in Renaissance Italy. Our Snow White is Bianca de Nevada, the innocent daughter of Spanish exile Vincente de Nevada. Our evil stepmother is Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of the very, very wicked Pope Alexander VI. When her brother, the ruthless Cesare Borgia, sends Vincente on a fool’s mission for the legendary Apples of Eden, Lucrezia Borgia puts herself in charge of Bianca and soon wearies of the increasingly beautiful girl. Meanwhile, in the forest, the slowest of all creatures–dwarves–are attempting to recover what they have once lost…
Maguire’s great strengths here are his knowledge of Renaissance Italy and some of the fantastical elements. The squabbling elite of Italy are mentioned by the Borgias, and the sinful activities of the Vatican under Pope Alexander VI, but these all take place fairly far away from Montefiore, Bianca’s home and the main setting of the novel. The magic mirror was made by dwarves, who want it back. The dwarves experience time much differently than humans, but under Bianca’s brief influence, they become more human. However, while the dwarves themselves are fantastic, the world they come from is hastily sketched. Even the lore of the Apples of Eden is distressingly brief. Such halfhearted world-building really hurts the novel–why even bother adding fantasy if you’re not going to try?
While I liked that the story skipped ahead every so often a few years consistently, the structure was odd. Chapters bounce perspective from character to character in no real order, and, worst of all, bounce from point of view to point of view–the women and fantastical creatures, oddly, have chapters in first person, while the men don’t. It makes for very jumpy and stilted reading, and it interrupts the story.
Lucrezia is the most developed character in the cast, a powerful beauty who falls from power over the course of the novel and, having used her beauty as a weapon for years, grows jealous of Bianca’s. This doesn’t mean she’s the most interesting or original–that honor belongs to Vincente de Nevada, a devoted father and widower who finds himself in over his head with the Borgias. But Vincente is treated less like a character by Maguire and more like a plot device. The way he just fades away at the end without a proper ending feels like a slap in the face for the character.
The rest, including Bianca, are more or less basic sketches–the cook feels like an attempt to insert the fabulous Nanny from Wicked into the story, and there’s a mildly amusing priest attached to Montefiore. Bianca’s main character traits are her virtue and innocence, which don’t make for a particularly engaging character. This is probably why she only gets two chapters to narrate. (Of course, this doesn’t adequately explain to me why she would trust Lucrezia again at the end, after she discovers what Lucrezia failed to do to her.)
Maguire, to his eternal credit, has never shied away from the coarse or disgusting, giving it equal time under his passive eye. But there is one scene that will gross out everyone, and make women go “I’m pretty sure we can’t do that”. While I’m glad he dealt with it, it’s just bizarre. In much the same vein, Maguire doesn’t shy away from the rumored incest of the Borgias, but he just lets it lie there. Lucrezia dismisses allegations that she slept with her father, but cavalierly drops the bomb that she and her brother are lovers. It’s never explored or explained, so it just feels like a superfluous way to demonize Lucrezia. There’s also the fact of the matter that Bianca is apparently so beautiful that Cesare Borgia makes a pass at her at the tender age of eleven. I realize we can split the difference between the time period and Cesare being absolutely vile, but Lucrezia barely blinks at it, growing jealous of Bianca instead of being disgusted at her brother. Bianca’s young age during that section and the casual incest of the Borgias grossed me out, to be totally honest.
I’m just really, really disappointed. I loved Wicked and Son of a Witch so much that it hurts to see Maguire flounder like this. It’s hard to put up with such halfhearted world building when you know Maguire’s Oz is fabulously rich, and such basic characters when he gave us Elphaba. Skip this.
Bottom line: A lackluster fairy tale retelling from someone who should definitely know better. Avoid.
I rented this book from the public library.