March 24, 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes

While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell

Release Date: February 20 2014
Publisher: Penguin | Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Pages: 432 pages
Source & Format: NetGalley; e-ARC
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Summary (from Goodreads)
A beautiful princess lies in a sleep so deep it is close to death. Was Sleeping Beauty revived by a prince's kiss? What really happened in that tower so long ago?

While Beauty Slept re-imagines the legend through the lens of historical fiction, telling the story as if it really happened. A Gothic tale of suspense and ambition, love and loss, it interweaves the story of a royal family and the servants who see behind the glamorous facade, following the journey of a young woman as she lives out a destiny that leads her to the brink of death.

Thoughts on While Beauty Slept
I'm not exactly sure where I first heard about While Beauty Slept, but I remember being drawn to the cover when I saw it on NetGalley. Yes, I'm that reader. I was trying to be good about not requesting too many books, so I told myself that I'd hold off. When I was still thinking about it days later, I decided to just cave and request it. I was never a huge fan of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, and it was probably my least-watched Disney movie growing up. But I was still really curious! I loved the sound of this book, especially since it was categorized as historical fiction and written as if the story had really happened.

There were a few things I enjoyed about While Beauty Slept, but it mostly ended up being a somewhat forgettable read for me. The book opens with an elderly woman, Elise, overhearing her great-granddaughter telling the story of Sleeping Beauty to her siblings. It's a fanciful version of the tale - the one you likely heard growing up. But Elise knows what really happened all those years ago, and she decides it's finally time to tell her story.

Unfortunately, this method of storytelling doesn't really work for me. I have a hard time with books that involve a person reflecting on the past and telling an entire story with the benefit of hindsight. There's usually a lot of distance between the "present" and the past, and I often find it unbelievable that anyone would remember this many details about every little moment in their life, particularly when the narrator is elderly. Listen, I can't even remember when I've told my husband the same thing within a week's span of time... forget trying to remember enough to recount my entire history. So, stories structured this way always throw me off a little bit right from the start.

A narrator telling a story from the past can be particular challenging in a story that hinges on a feeling of mystery, foreboding or suspense (as this one does). It can create an emotional distance in the story - a disconnect - because the events don't have an immediacy or urgency. Unfortunately, that's what happened for me in this one. The narrator frequently interjected these little "if only I had known then that..." type comments, and it felt very heavy-handed. I'm all for a little foreshadowing, but it's not enjoyable when there's no opportunity for curiosity because the narrator is basically giving everything away.

The pace is also really slow, and I suspect the things I mentioned above contributed to that feeling. Sometimes a slower book really works for me, but I just found myself mostly bored with this story. I cared enough to keep reading to find out what happened, but there wasn't that feeling of "oh, I can't put this down!" that I'd usually find in something billed as "a Gothic tale of suspense." With all of this slow build up, I actually found the ending anti-climactic.

I liked that the author made this story something that could have really happened in history, but I also couldn't help feeling that it wandered a bit too much in the telling. And as a huge historical fiction reader, I will say that this still felt like an imaginary world. There weren't any historical details to connect it to an real period in time, which isn't a big deal but was slightly disappointing.

Honestly, very little of this story actually concerns Princess Rose (Sleeping Beauty). It is Elise's story, and she was the real protagonist. All of that would be fine if Elise was really engaging, but she was a very flat narrator. I didn't get a good sense of the emotional connection to the events and people she was describing, which is why I ended up disconnected from the story overall. It's just a bit of a misleading title and description to imply this is Sleeping Beauty's story or that it really spends much time at all on the events in the tower. That was such a minor part of the book!

Things felt a bit too convenient at times and made no sense at all in others. It wasn't a bad book by any means, but I didn't find a lot that I really enjoyed. Overall, it was just okay. It wouldn't be the first book I'd recommend if you asked about fairy tale retellings, but I think it could work better for other readers. I wish I'd liked While Beauty Slept more, but I found the story only somewhat interesting and not very engaging.
*I received a copy of this book from Putnam in exchange for an honest review. I was not compensated in any way for my review.

4 comments:

  1. I definitely liked this one better than you did, but I can also see most of your points. I did find myself occasionally saying to myself, "OK this book is called While Beauty Slept and we're X pages into it and Beauty is still only a toddler, 5 years old, etc... I feel like the title was more to make it clear that this is a re-telling than to truly describe the story accurately, which I'm not sure is a good or a bad thing.

    I think I have an easier time suspending my disbelief when the format is a narrator looking back at her life, even though you are right that it is rather unrealistic. After reading that first scene, I pretty much forgot about that fact except when wondering who Elise would end up with and who would be the father of her child, knowing that she does eventually have a family since she has a great-granddaughter in the first scene. After about 200 pages this one really did hook me, even though I found the beginning slow -- and I personally loved the ending, but every book can't be for everyone!

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    1. Yes, I went back and re-read your review after I wrote mine because I remember just skimming it when you posted it. That's a great point about the title being meant to make it clear that it's a retelling. Now that you say that, it makes sense they'd do so. But it does set up the expectation that you're going to hear Sleeping Beauty's story, which you kinda do but not in the way the title implies.

      I can sometimes suspend my disbelief if I'm swept away in the story. I think I was already somewhat disconnected, so that just added to it. I couldn't forget it because of the little foreshadowing interjections - those threw me off the most because it kept reminding me that she was looking back and telling this story. I wanted just a little bit more emotional connection, and then I would have been able to enjoy the slower pace a bit more.

      A friend who has read this also loved the ending! I liked the twist on the story, and I suspect that I would have enjoyed the ending more if I'd been a little more into the book. Since I wasn't able to get hooked, I wasn't as invested in it overall. But it honestly could have been partly because I wasn't in the mood for a slower book!

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  2. Aww, I'm sorry While Beauty Slept didn't turn out to be an engaging read for you! I really wound up liking that one for some reason, mostly because I found it clever (in combining the fairy tale and history). But I can totally agree with you about the foreshadowing, which was something I really took issue with in this novel.

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    1. This was definitely one of those books where I may just not have been in the mood for it! I didn't dislike it - but yeah, I hated that I wasn't more engaged. I definitely thought it was clever though! And I'm glad you agree on the foreshadowing thing. I think that's partly why I had certain expectations of the ending. So much reference to it throughout the book!

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