Fairy Tales, Princesses, Gothic Witches, & Popular Fiction

First, just to clarify: in this post, I won’t be discussing fairy tale retellings (books that set out to retell a specific fairy tale in a different way) but rather fairy tale inspired works.

If you look at many of my favorite books from Jane Eyre, to Rebecca, to Wuthering Heights, to We Have Always Lived in the Castle, you’ll see a lot of similar elements. Big houses, family secrets, and other gothic trappings. But there’s another element that’s consistent in them: fairy tales. Jane Eyre and Rebecca are both Bluebeard stories: A young woman becomes romantically involved with a wealthy man with a big house. It would seem to be a Cinderella story, but there’s a secret involving the man’s previous wife. In both cases, the man bears some degree of culpability. In Wuthering Heights, we see Heathcliff continuously compared to a beast; called “wolfish” with “sharp, cannibal teeth.” But unlike the traditional fairytale romantic beast, his actions are as beastly as the rest of him. While the love between Beauty and the Beast sets the Beast’s castle free of an enchantment, the love between Cathy and Heathcliff imprisons them and their families for a generation. We see a more traditional Beauty and the Beast story play out later with their children. Hareton is the Beast made in his father’s image, and Catherine is the Beauty who “tames” him. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle, we see the fairytale castle before it became an enchanted ruin. We learn about the crime that made Witches of normal women.

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But the fairy tale influence isn’t just limited to classics.  As a pre-teen, I was, like many, obsessed with VC Andrews. My favorite of her books was Flowers in the Attic. I haven’t reread it in years and I don’t want to. I have the sense that it’s not the kind of book that will hold up well. But the fairy tale influences are strong throughout. When their father dies, four children are brought to Grandmother’s House by their mother. In this case, Grandmother’s House happens to be a mansion and the children are locked in the attic because if  Grandfather finds out they exist, Mom won’t get her inheritance.  They’re told they won’t be up there long. Grandfather is old and dying. And Mom will try to tell him about them eventually. They’ll be in the attic maybe a week tops.  They’re up there for three years. We have two “witches” here. Grandmother has a bible verse for every occasion, a wide definition of sin, and a ready whip. But even more frightening is Mom, who seems a helpless, beautiful Princess at first. Caught in a bad situation she just wants to do what’s best for her family. But by degrees, she becomes convinced that keeping the kids locked up is the best thing for them. Then she realizes it’s the best thing for her and stops caring about them.  The narrator, Cathy, is twelve when the book begins, and fifteen when it ends. In many ways, she’s literally the Princess locked away in a tower. But she’s also got a bit of a Witch in her (explored more in the sequel, Petals on the Wind) in that like most teenage girls, she’s selfish, cynical, and can see things as pretty bleak. Also, in her family, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. She comes from a long line of Witches. A lot of the tension in the series deals with who she ultimately becomes: Princess or Witch?

A few years ago, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a major bestseller. We saw some of that Witch/Princess emerge in the character of Amy. She’s beautiful, in danger, and (for a time) locked away. But she also has some fairly witchy characteristics. Unlike Cathy, in Flowers in the Attic, who is always straddling the Princess/Witch divide, Amy definitely falls on one side more than the other. I won’t say which, to avoid spoilers. But Gone Girl wasn’t the only fairy tale inspired work that Gillian Flynn has in her oeuvre. Its success made her other two novels best sellers. Sharp Objects was just turned into a TV miniseries. In it, we have a clear Witch and a Princess/Witch. Camille is a  troubled journalist who returns to her hometown to investigate a double murder. We also meet her mother, Adora, is a manipulative narcissist. In her essay, “I Was Not A Nice Little Girl” Flynn discusses her intention to write about a Princess raised by a Witch.  Would Rapunzel, raised in a tower by a Witch, be a good woman? Or would she turn into a Witch herself?

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Top Ten Tuesday: “Girl”-ish Suspense Novels

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

April 24: Frequently Used Words In [Insert Genre/Age Group] Titles

A lot has been written about the publishing industry’s “girl” in the title trend. Many of these novels tend to be in the suspense genre. Why? Is it misogyny or simply publishers trying to replicate the success of a previous book? Is it good visibility for female writers, narrators, and protagonists? Is it patronizing? I don’t know, I’m just listing these! You can read some various speculation and opinions here:

The Gone Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on the Train

The Girl in the Title: More Than A Marketing Trend

This is Why So Many Books Have ‘Girl’ In the Title

This Summer, Girls in Titles and Girls in Peril

Here are a few mystery/suspense novels that I’ve read with “girl” in the title:

41n-cqd9cfl-_ac_us218_1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn– On Nick and Amy’s wedding anniversary, Amy disappears. At first, Nick seems appropriately concerned. Then his concern shifts to himself as he realizes that he might be a suspect. But when we learn Amy’s side of the story, we realize that neither Nick nor Amy make reliable narrators. I read this one after it had already become a best seller and had a film adaptation in the works. When you read something at that point, I think, expectations play a factor in your enjoyment. I definitely liked this book, but I didn’t find it as “twisty” as promised.

51vg7zt42ul-_ac_us218_2. All The Missing Girls by Megan Miranda-Nicolette returns to her hometown to help her brother fix up the family home so that they can put it on the market. She’s been away from her hometown for a decade; ever since her best friend from high school disappeared. When her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend also vanishes, suspicion falls on Nicolette. But this novel is told in reverse over a two week period. It starts on Day 15 and ends on Day 1. While this could be interesting, here it just felt gimmicky.

51vcmamyul-_ac_us218_3. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins- Rachel commutes to and from London every day. Every day, from the train, she sees a happy couple, Jason and Jess, in their yard, and fantasizes about their life. But one day she sees Jess kissing another man, and the day after that, Jess goes missing. As Rachel’s voyeurism leads her to investigate Jess’ disappearance, she also gets drawn into the lives of her ex-husband and his new wife, Anna, who just happen to be Jason and Jess’ neighbors. I was interested in this while I read it, but found it rather forgettable.

516o2pmlbl-_ac_us218_4. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll– Ani FaNelli is living what she thinks is a perfect life. Fancy job, eligible fiance, designer clothes, cool zip code. But Ani has been running from her past ever since high school. Ani attended Bradley Prep in Philadelphia, where she dreamed of being part of the cool crowd. This led her to make some bad decisions, which later spiraled out of control culminating in an “incident” that leaves Ani forever known as both a victim and a villain.  When the director of a documentary being made about the incident wants to interview Ani on film, she agrees, thinking about how great she’ll look on camera with her gigantic engagement ring. But as she goes home and revisits places she never wanted to return to, she realizes that she’ll have to reconcile what happened in her past, if she wants a future. The biggest problem this book has is that Ani is so unlikable. We do eventually learn the origins of Ani’s obsession with the perfect life, and it makes sense. But it’s hard to tolerate her attitude until that point!

41ansdjnybl-_ac_us218_5. The Good Girl by Mary Kubica– One night, Mia, the adult daughter of Chicago judge, James Dennett, impulsively goes home with Colin. What seemed like a one night stand, turns into a nightmare when Colin forces her into his car at gunpoint. He’s been hired to kidnap her for ransom, but rather than bring Mia to his employer, he decides to bring her to a remote cabin instead. Meanwhile, back home, Mia’s mother, Eva, wonders why her husband isn’t panicking about Mia’s kidnapping the way that she is. Gabe, the detective investigating, wonders the same thing.  Mia, Colin, Eva, and Gabe all serve as narrators in alternating chapters. Events are also divided into “before” and “after.” This structure initially makes things confusing. But eventually, they come together pretty well. I would have liked this book a lot more, had it not had an epilogue that throws in an additional twist. That twist makes the whole rest of the book not make sense anymore.

51ofjphi6l-_ac_us218_6. Pretty Girls by Karen Slaughter– In the early 1990’s Julia has been taken from a family with three daughters. Each member of the family has different ways of coping with their loss. The book starts twenty years later. The two remaining sisters, Lydia and Claire, haven’t spoken in years. After Claire’s husband, Paul, is killed, Claire makes a discovery that sends her to find her estranged sister, Lydia, who is quite pleased to learn of her brother-in-law’s demise. From there both sisters are drawn into a complicated “whodunnit” scenario that involves everyone they thought that they could trust. This book has a lot of twists and turns and some jaw clenching tension. However, it’s also extremely violent and quite graphic, so readers be warned.

51l3fbhyml-_ac_us218_7. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson– This is arguably the one that started the trend. Forty years ago Harriet Vanger, the daughter of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families disappeared. Her uncle still wants to find out what happened to her, so he hires journalist Mikhael Blomkvist to investigate. Blomkvist is accompanied by tattooed computer prodigy Lisbeth Salander. Salander has her own troubling past. Together, she and Blomkvist uncover some horrific secrets. I know that this series has some big fans, but I’m not one of them. I finished it because I tend to like to finish things once I start them. But in terms of my feelings about it, occasionally I was curious, but more often I was disgusted. There wasn’t enough of the curiosity to balance out the disgust IMO.

41ay05dlaxl-_ac_us218_8. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma– Chloe and Ruby are sisters. When a night out with Ruby and her friends goes horribly wrong, Chloe finds the body of a classmate floating in a reservoir. She’s sent away from home. Two years later she comes back. Her return forces the sisters to confront the truth about what happened that night. Even though this book is technically classified as YA, it doesn’t really feel like it.  It’s not something you’ll burn through in one afternoon. It’s surreal, strange, eerie, and atmospheric. It’s hard to tell what is real and what’s a dream/fantasy/something else. I think that you could have more than one interpretation of exactly what happened.

51azpk8ifvl-_ac_us218_9. The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel– Lane left her grandparent’s Kansas estate, Roanoke, years ago when she was a teenager. She returns when her cousin Allegra goes missing.  The story is told in two timelines. One takes place the summer that Lane arrived at Roanoke, following the death of her mother and continues as we learn what made her run away. The other takes place in the present, as Lane searches for the truth about what happened to Allegra. About two or three chapters in, we learn something that made me go “ick.” I think that was the intention. I kept reading out of morbid curiosity. Once all the pieces are in place, it’s not hard to put them together. It gets ickier. Not explicit or graphic, but it still makes your skin crawl.  If you have a high “ick” tolerance, you might want to check this out.

51ssmq6cx2l-_ac_us218_10. The Silent Girl by Tess Gerritsen– A dead body is found mutilated in Boston’s Chinatown. The only clues are two silver hairs- not the victim’s- found clinging to the corpse. Medical examiner, Maura Isles, discovers evidence that links the crime to a murder-suicide that happened in Chinatown almost two decades earlier. The only survivor of that night is now the target of the killer. I’ve read most of Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series, and this wasn’t my favorite. It’s an OK read if you’re interested in something suspenseful and unchallenging, but ultimately that’s really all it is.