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Friday, March 29, 2013

Review: STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD by Jane Nickerson

Review of historical fairy tale retelling, Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
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Historical/Fairy Tale Retelling, 352 pages
Published March 12th 2013 by Random House Children's Books
The Bluebeard fairy tale retold. . . .

When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.

Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

Glowing strands of romance, mystery, and suspense are woven into this breathtaking debut—a thrilling retelling of the “Bluebeard” fairy tale.

I'm always on the lookout for fairy tale retellings that take on lesser-known and lesser-used tales, so of course when I heard there was a Bluebeard retelling, I was all over that. Fortunately for me, Strands of Bronze and Gold didn't disappoint. Jane Nickerson has placed the "Bluebeard" tale in antebellum South, using a Southern Gothic style to create a retelling that is gorgeously atmospheric and lush. I thought it was such a great idea for Nickerson to place the retelling on a plantation in the south. I mean, think about it: "Bluebeard" is essentially a story of a man doing what he wants with impunity - what other era and location better exemplifies that than a pre-war plantation? This setting is perfectly suited to take Sophie out of her element and keep her on her toes, and to give Monsieur Bernard exactly what he would have most wanted - complete control. Antebellum South = mecca for a man as obsessive, controlling, manipulative, paranoid and violent as Bluebeard/Bernard. It's a really clever setting.*

By nature, the Southern Gothic style may be slow for some, but it was exactly what I wanted. It's very slow-burning, taking time to set the scene and build the reveal of who Bernard really is, so as to have the most impact. The reader isn't rushed into things, but instead gets to know and understand young, naive Sophie, and see Bernard's charm at work. I think this builds a good reveal for those unfamiliar with Bluebeard, but also keeps everything tense and ominous for those who know the story. Some, too, may be bothered the time spent on description; the architecture, the grounds, Sophie's wardrobe and her jewelry and gifts from Bernard - things like this can be pet-peevy to some, and sometimes even to me. What made it work, though, is that they serve purposes: Bernard's gifts and ostentation help daze and charm Sophie in the beginning, and when she begins to see through it, they help him control and guilt her. (They also help demonstrate his considerable ego and skills at emotional abuse.) At the same time, they help us understand just how naive and shallow (in the way of the young) Sophie is, so we have a point from which she can grow - which she does. Monsieur Bernard is perfectly creepy, utterly controlling but able to charm away people's misgivings. He demonstrates all the hallmarks of an abuser or a sociopath, and he absolutely made my skin crawl. Everyone else is in the story is background to the two of them, but frankly, that's the way it should be. The tale is only ever about Bluebeard and his curious wife, and for it to work with the same level of tension, there needs to be the same feeling of a very insular, oppressive world, to make Sophie's situation more precarious.

Though only thing that I really had a problem with was some of the more paranormal aspects at the end. The book begins to take on a somewhat magical realist feel, which I both liked and didn't. It felt a little jarring to have the book begin to skew paranormal after the more straight-forward, lush historical feel, and though I didn't hate that it went slightly paranormal, I think it would have worked just fine with Sophie just using her brain and figuring things out or investigating hunches, without being helped along.

Some things I'm going to address that I really hadn't intended to address.

I generally don't read other people's reviews until I've written my own, because I don't want to be biased. But April of Good Books and Good Wine tweeted hers or shared it on Facebook, or something, and I just had to know what she thought - which is how I realized that some people have a much deeper issue with this book. Some people, it seems, are very bothered by the issue of POC characters in this book, and though I did notice some of the things that bothered them (essentially a "stock" quality to black characters in the book, and not enough on the issue of slavery), I didn't have nearly the problems they have with it.

Here's the thing: some people have a problem with the depiction of the slaves in the book - not that they're there, but that they're not as fleshed out as Sophie or Bernard. But nobody is. And I don't think they should be. Everyone is background, and some people may hate that, and want to cry foul and say the book/Nickerson doesn't do enough to address race or privilege. But I don't think it would have worked otherwise - all of the characters, no matter their race, culture or social class, have to be background in a story like this because the female main character has to feel alone. And to be fair, all of the white characters in the book are stock and not as fleshed out as Sophia and Bernard, either... Again, they need to be - Sophie has to be isolated and feel like she doesn't really have anywhere to turn. I think it bears repeating: all of the characters, black and white alike, are static characters meant to either help keep Sophie isolated or facilitate her growth. This includes the (black) slaves, the (white) housekeeper, Sophie's (white) family, Sophie's (black) former-slave friend, and Sophie's (white) new love interest. Every one of them is a flat counterpoint to Sophie's isolation and eventual growth. Like it or not, this story is about her - it isn't about them.

The other racially charged argument I saw was that people weren't happy in particular with the character of Anarchy, a kind, older former slave who plays a sort of motherly role to Sophie, when she can. Some people cried "Mammy!" and though I'm not saying you can't sometimes end up with a completely flat, stock, "token" character, it also shouldn't mean that an author can never have a nice/old/motherly black lady without someone calling her a "Mammy." Because it has become a cliche, there aren't allowed to be any nice old black ladies in books or movies ever again?  There are all types of people in the world, including nice elderly black ladies, and I'd say in Southern historical fiction especially, it's near inevitable - any lady over a certain age is going to fall into that motherly/voice of wisdom role. Can you make a case for a character "falling" into a role being laziness? Sure. But does that automatically also make it nefarious or insensitive? No. Being sensitive and politically correct is one thing, but there does come a point where political correctness and sensitivity stop being beneficial and instead become stifling and counter-productive...

Maybe this will bother some of you, so I guess it bears mention. But for me, Nickerson did what she set out to do, which was to retell Bluebeard, focusing on a story of obsession and control. The book may have slavery in it, but it isn't about slavery. And I don't think every book that has slavery, or any other problematic/disturbing theme, setting, etc., should have to be about that setting or theme. Not all stories should seek to right every wrong or explore every nuance of a very complex problem. And an author who hasn't set out to do a thing, shouldn't be attacked for not doing that thing.
Some stories will just be stories.

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  1. Great review and I have this one next in my queue - I'm looking forward to it despite what I have heard as well from the negative side.

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  2. Ok after reading your review this definitely goes on my fairytale retelling list. I love the Bluebeard story and Netflix has a really good movie that tells the story, but I can't remember the title.

  3. I read the book and have yet to write a review. And I think you touched on a couple of things I was having a problem with. I'm glad I came across this review because it does bring to light some things that were a problem for me.

  4. I am with you on this review. I read some other reviews of the book after I read it, and they made some good points, but I just loved the story. I also think you made some good counterpoints about it being about Sophie and not slavery although it was an issue of the time period. And it would have to be a part of the story albeit part of the backdrop rather than the main plot. I think Nickerson balanced the book well and really drew us into Sophie's pov well.

  5. I think I love you! My aunt wrote this book and I have been so frustrated with some of the reviews where they expected it to be politically correct instead of the story it was meant to be. I'm marking your page and checking on it for every single book review from now on!! Very well said!

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  7. Haha! Glad you approve, Miranda! ;)

  8. I agree 100%! You took the words right out of my mouth but said it all much better than I could. :)Thanks for the review!


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