Some might say that novelist Carolyn Turgeon's books tell the hidden side of fairy tales. That's true enough, but I'd put it differently: Her books tell of the ways women relate to one another through beauty. The idea behind Carolyn's latest, The Fairest of Them All, is deceptively simple: What if Rapunzel were Snow White's "evil stepmother"? That is, what if we saw the evolution of how a sympathetic woman renowned for her beauty became so obsessed with another person's loveliness that she'd order her death?
It's a variation on a theme Carolyn explored in Mermaid, which spotlights the relationship between the mermaid and the princess of the classic fairy tale: "They're both beautiful, but they are literally different species, and I wanted to explore that complicated relationship." I asked her about the ways the heroines of The Fairest of Them All relate to beauty:
"In fairy tales, women like Rapunzel and Snow White tend to be valued for their beauty above anything else. I mean, they can be stuck in a tower or lying dead in a coffin in the forest and the most eligible bachelors will still fall in love with them instantly, that is how hot they are. I’m not sure that anyone’s falling in love with anyone because of their great hearts or their mutual love of The Smiths, if you know what I mean. In that context, how’s a dazzler like Rapunzel or Snow White—or any other woman who believes that her only value or power comes from her beauty—going to deal with getting older? The evil queen’s obsession with her mirror and hatred of Snow White seem like an understandable reaction to me, when it comes down to it. That kind of privileging of youth and beauty of course creates plenty of anxiety and rivalry among women—though in real life they might not eat each other’s hearts—which I personally try to address and find some way out of in my books.
"I think part of what makes Snow White so lovable and so marriageable is that she’s not only stunning but totally humble; there she is hanging out with birds and squirrels, oblivious to the fact that she’s so hot that men are falling all over themselves to get with her. Armed with youth, good genes, and a fairy gift or two, she can afford to be. The evil queen doesn’t really have that luxury, not anymore. There she is, off to the side, still beautiful but no longer getting any of that attention that’s now being lavished on Snow White. We like women who are beautiful but don’t know they are; we like those ladies in the Dove ads who are stunned and delighted to discover that they’re lovely. I think part of what makes the queen so evil is that she’s not being bashful or humble about the fact that she’s beautiful. She’s fully aware of her beauty and the power it once gave her but isn’t really giving her anymore. And she’s pissed! She knows full well what youth and beauty will bring Snow White: marriage, love, the potential for riding off into a happily ever after…until she gets that first gray hair, anyway."
Enjoy the excerpt below that expands on this idea—and leave a comment to be entered to win a signed paperback copy of The Fairest of Them All. The novel is written for adults but also has great young adult crossover appeal. Giveaway open through 11:59 p.m. ET August 19, 2013. And hey, New York readers: Join me tonight at 6 p.m. at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble to hear Carolyn read from the book!
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I was the girl with the long long hair, trapped in the tower. You have no doubt heard of me. As a young woman I was very famous for those tresses, even though I lived in the middle of the woods and had never even been to court, not for a feast or a wedding or a matter of law.
My hair was like threads of gold flowing down my back and past the floor. If I didn’t tie it up, it would sweep across the stone and collect dust like a broom. I could lean out my tower window and it would fall out like an avalanche, gleaming like the sun hitting the water. It was as bright as sunflowers or daisies, softer than fur, stronger than an iron chain.
Every night I took horsetail and aloe from the garden, spoke words over them, and boiled them and mashed them into a thin pulp, which I then combed through my locks to make them strong and healthy and almost impossible to break. I would sing, and inhale the rich scent, to make the work go faster. To this day I love that feeling, of fingers running through my hair, the weight of it as it falls on my back.
Poets and troubadours sang of my beauty then.
It was sorcery, that hair. Sometimes now I wonder if things would have been different, had I been plain.
It is a hard thing, not being that girl any longer. Even as I sit here, I cannot help but turn toward the mirror and ask the question I have asked a thousand times before:
“Who is the fairest of them all?”
The mirror shifts. The glass moves back and forth, like water. And then my image disappears, until a voice, like a memory, or something from my bones and skin, gives me the same answer it always does now:
I turn back to the parchment in front of me and try to ignore the ache inside. The apple waits on the table next to me, gleaming with poison. All that’s left to do is write it down, everything that happened, so that there will still be some record in this world.