Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark was one of the very first books from my reading list I highlighted on The Literary Horizon here at the blog, and I think it says a lot about my bookish turnaround that it’s taken me three years to get to one of her novels. Along with being praised by readers whose taste I trust, Briar Rose has been haunting my footsteps at school; it was very nearly a selection for that children’s and young adult literature class I never shut up about. I’m not sure what motivated me to pick it up, after three years of not being motivated to, but I found myself starting it at lunch and ending it a few hours later.
Briar Rose follows Becca Berlin, an American and Jewish woman in her early twenties. When her grandmother, Gemma, passes away and leaves behind a box of mysterious objects, Becca, a reporter by profession, decides to solve the mystery of her grandmother’s missing past. While the family has always assumed Gemma fled Europe before World War II, Gemma herself has only ever claimed a very specific retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” as her history, and Becca, who is the only one of her three sisters to care about stories, is determined to find out how much of “Sleeping Beauty” is true and how much is fairy tale.
Briar Rose is part of editor Terri Windling’s Fairy Tale Series, which aimed to give adults back fairy tales; the last installment, Fitcher’s Brides, a retelling of Bluebeard, came out in 2002. Published in 1992, Briar Rose now easily fits into the modern trend of young adult fiction, with its breezy prose, short length, and atypical formatting. There are three narrative threads; the first is the adult Becca trying to piece together Gemma’s life, while the second is a series of vignettes that gives Gemma’s version of “Sleeping Beauty” piece by piece as we go along. The third is Gemma’s real story, but it’s self-contained and comes late in the novel.
To be totally honest, I was expecting a pretty straightforward retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” until the first chapter with adult Becca started. At this particular moment in history, fairy tale retellings are quite popular—I mean, just the past few months boasted two big screen retellings of “Snow White”—but, even when they try to be dark and gritty, they’re still, give or take a good bit, the same story. What Briar Rose does brilliantly is not retell the story of “Sleeping Beauty”. Rather, the story itself becomes a device in the hands of Gemma; the mysterious history Becca sets out to uncover is hinted at in the story of “Sleeping Beauty”. I’m not spoiling it to tell you that one of this novel’s greatest rewards is realizing how the truth and the story walk hand in hand. I’ve not read anything else in this series, so I don’t know if this is Yolen taking a risk that pays off well or an approach Windling encouraged in her authors, but it does bode well for the rest of the series.
World War II and “Sleeping Beauty” work wonderfully together here; the early nineties, not so much. Now, obviously, it’s not a text’s fault that it was created in a certain decade. As a ludicrously avid fan of the eighties (in the sense that nostalgia in someone who wasn’t even born in the eighties is ludicrous), I often seek that out. But there’s something about the personal dynamics between Becca and her sisters that feels a little flat. In the short chapters where we hear Gemma’s version of “Sleeping Beauty”, the sisters are often present, but they show up at the beginning to be cold, unfeeling professional women (reminding me of nothing more than that Saturday Night Live ad parody about yuppies going to hell) and nothing else is done with them. I realize “Sleeping Beauty” doesn’t deal in sisters, but it feels a bit odd to bring up shades of “Cinderella” and not do anything with it. There’s also an abbreviated love story between Becca and Stan, a co-worker, but I can almost let its briefness slide because Becca already comes to the table with a crush on him. Still, these are more signs of the time more than anything inherently off about the novel.
Bottom line: World War II and “Sleeping Beauty” work wonderfully together in Briar Rose, which is less a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” and more a novel about how something so seemingly light as a fairy tale can contain so much horror and truth. Solid.
I rented this book from the public library.