Title: Briar Rose
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Fairy Tale/Fiction
Age: Young Adult through Adult
Is This Part of a Series?: Yes (the Fairy Tale Series created by Terri Windling)
*I purchased a used copy of this book for a seminar on Fairy Tales taught by Theodora Goss
Rebecca and her grandmother, Gemma, have a special relationship with each other. One centered around Gemma’s own version of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. This tale of Briar Rose, as told by Gemma to the younger Rebecca, is interspersed between chapters of Rebecca as a young woman. In these chapters with grown-up Rebecca (the “present”), we follow along as she attempts to learn about her grandmother’s past after Gemma claimed, as she lay dying, that Gemma was, in fact, the Briar Rose from her story. In the chapter set in the past, we get to hear the wonderful story that Gemma wove and see the development of the special relationship that grew between Gemma and Rebecca.
I loved this book–and not just because these characters are Polish and of Polish descent like I am, either. Since reading it the first time, I have recommended it to many people. It touched me, reaching below the surface of my reader’s brain to the part of me that is made up of more than just a person needing a diversion. It is one of those books that I aspire to be able to match when writing my own novels and, recently, I have been feeling as if it is time for a reread. This book is definitely a permanent member of my personal library.
The Nitty Gritty:
This was a great book. Nothing else need be said about it, except go read it! Of course, since the whole purpose of this blog is to provide you with a hoard of book reviews, and I believe a book review should look at at least some elements of craft, I’ll be kind and give you a bit more to go off of. But seriously. Read it. It’s worth it.
I loved the format of alternating chapters between the story Gemma was telling and the journey that Becca was going on. It is rare that I enjoy this sort of formatting. I tend to get impatient with not seeing enough of one side of the story at once. I will get impatient and skip chapters, chunking them together in a different order based on which character I am most interested in and then going back to catch the rest. In the case of Briar Rose, however, Ms. Yolen did such a wonderful job of thoroughly linking the chapters together that I felt no need to skip around. Each chapter built on the character development, theme, and suspense provided in the previous chapter. So even though they were set in two separate time periods and advanced through their respective time periods at a different rate, they were all integral to both the previous chapter and the following chapter, creating a snowball effect that kept me glued to the pages–in the order that Ms. Yolen had settled on!
In fact, I was impressed with how much of a page turner it was, despite the fact that it was a more of an emotional book than an action novel. I will admit that it hit home a little more than it might otherwise have done because it was following a Polish family, which is significant for me, because my maternal lineage is Polish and I have always strongly identified with it. The section about Josef Potocki also brought to mind the time I got to visit the Holocaust Museum in D.C. I was about six months pregnant with my first child and it all hit home how my husband and I both would have been seen as defective (glasses, bad teeth, coloring not quite right, etc) and that the baby I was carrying wouldn’t have been allowed if Hitler had had his way. There were also some bricks from one of the Polish ghettos and I had the idea that I could be standing on the same bricks as family members. I actually had a family member die in Auschwitz. All of that said, however, and I still feel it would be an emotional book for anyone reading it. The characters are relatable to the point of having an every man feel–but they are distinct and complex too, allowing for an easy connection between the book and the reader. The drive to know your family history and the journey and discoveries Becca encountered; the idea of what is happily ever after; weaving it in with a fairy tale…it was all great. It was all relatable, thought-provoking, and impactful. This is a book I will always be grateful that I read!
Book Club Chatter:
There are the obvious questions surrounding the Holocaust that could be addressed, but which most people are familiar with and have probably dealt with one or more times in the past. So I’m going to go ahead and skip those, although they are certainly worth covering if that is something your book club is interested in. Here are some other themes and questions to consider:
- What counts as happily ever after? How do you determine if you, or someone in your past, have “reached” happily ever after? Is it the same for everyone?
- What makes this a fairy tale?
- Is it important to know your family history? Why or why not?
- How do negative events in world history (large scale events that impact many people), impact individuals? Is there an event that personally impacted you or your generation? How do you think it shaped you?