Book Review for “The Charmed Wife” by Olga Grushin.
Summary: “Cinderella married the man of her dreams–the perfect ending she deserved after diligently following all the fairy-tale rules. Yet now, two children and thirteen and a half years later, things have gone badly wrong and her life is far from perfect. One night, fed up, she sneaks out of the palace to get help from the Witch who, for a price, offers love potions to disgruntled housewives. But as the old hag flings the last ingredients into the cauldron, Cinderella doesn’t ask for a love spell to win back her Prince Charming. Instead, she wants him dead. … Nothing in it is quite what it seems, and the twists and turns of its magical, dark, swiftly shifting paths take us deep into the heart of what makes us unique, of romance and marriage, and of the very nature of storytelling.”
Age: Adult; Genres: Fiction – Literary, Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Romance, Women, Coming-of-age; Settings: Historical, Contemporary, Fictional Worlds, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut; Other Categories: Novel, modernization, re-imagining.
Yes, this is supposed to be a fantasy book, and yes, that is totally out of my wheelhouse, but you see, I like a good fairy tale from time to time, so there is that. What drew me to this book was just that – the idea of taking a fairy tale and seeing what happens in the “happily ever after” part of the story. Also, the blurb for this book reminded minded me of the Sara Bareilles song “Fairy Tale” (link to the video below) where the lyrics say “Cinderella’s on the bedroom floor. She’s got a crush on the guy from the liquor store. Cause Mr. Charming don’t come home anymore, and she forgets why she came here.” The song goes on to tell the disappointments of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Rapunzel! This very feminist song attempts to tell us that these fairy tale stories are problematic, mostly because they perpetuate the idea that a woman needs a man to be rescued and give them that ‘happily ever after’ ending to their lives. Then along comes Olga Grushin and writes a whole book, basically using this same premise.
However, where Sara limits herself to just a few fairy tale princesses, Grushin includes practically all of them, and then some. Furthermore, Grushin also includes nursery rhymes and other famous childhood poems and stories into the mix, which ends up with an amalgam that is both fascinating and disturbing. Fascinating because you never know which story or poem is going to show up on the next page. Disturbing in that maybe Grushin is saying that we’ve been feeding our children with the wrong types of literature for centuries, never thinking that perhaps the lessons we thought were trying to impart might damage rather than wizen and enlighten our offspring. Then again, maybe Grushin’s message here is something else altogether. Perhaps, what Grushin is trying to say here is that marriage isn’t the be-all and end-all of a relationship, but rather just the beginning. That also means that both parties need to take responsibility for making their own “happily ever after” endings, right? Well, somewhat, yes – I think (I’d say more but then I might include spoilers).
In any case, I must note that I totally adored Grushin’s lush prose here, which includes all the essential elements of any good fairy tale. Grushin knows how to paint pictures with her words, with opulent descriptions of both the beautiful and the horrific. Grushin also uses the type of language that is evocative, with just the right level of old-world authenticity to create the proper atmosphere. All that said, one thing that this reader (one who isn’t used to reading fantasy books) was a bit surprised by, was how Grushin made the timeline here feel very fluid. By that I mean that in one part of the book we’re hearing about horse drawn carriages, where elsewhere there’s electricity and automobiles and even cell phones. Furthermore, Grushin’s world building is equally as changeable, as it goes from huge royal palaces in the middle of nowhere, reachable through forests and brambles, to taking trams or going up elevators in a Manhattan skyscraper. Admittedly, when this first happened, it made me uneasy and uncomfortable. However, the more I read, the more I started to think that the whole fairy tale fantasy part was just there as a surreal mechanic used to further Grushin’s underlining message; an allegory, if you will, hidden within a very confusing dream. I guess it is up to the reader to decide if this is the case or not. Also, there are the italicized asides about the two mice (and their successors) who are her friends, which could have been annoying, but ended up being quite fun to read.
Be all this as it may, one thing is for certain; if you start reading this, you’ll probably want to read to the end, because absolutely nothing is self-evident in this novel, and you’ll want to watch how Grushin carefully morphs the narrative from classic fairy tale mode to modern fantasy, all the way to its strange conclusion. Again, since I have so little experience with this genre, I don’t know if these mixtures of modern and ancient magical elements are now the norm, or if this book is unique. One way or another, it really was a fascinating read, even if it was jarring at times. I think that for non-fantasy readers like me, this is worthy of a very solid [revised] four and a half stars out of five (but I’m betting that fantasy readers will probably give this book full marks). It is certainly out of the ordinary, that is undeniable. (Plus, it didn’t hurt to have Bareilles’ marvelous song in my head while I read.)
Putnam released “The Charmed Wife” by Olga Grushin on January 12 (or 21), 2021. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Waterstones, WHSmith, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBooks and audiobooks), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org and UK.Bookshop (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.
This book qualifies for the following reading challenges!