BOOK REC: The Charmed Wife – Olga Grushin

Author: Olga Grushin (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Fantasy, magic realism

And they lived happily ever after . . . didn’t they?

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.

One night, 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.

I am very overdue in reviewing this. After vowing I would request no more books on Netgalley towards the end of 2020, I got an email about The Charmed Wife and, a fan of dark fairy tale reimaginings, I was very easily convinced to break my promise. Ostensibly, it’s the aftermath of Cinderella, what happened after the Happily Ever After. It’s a subject that has been explored more than once, but the time period in this one interested me. They’ve been married more than a decade, they have children. This is an older, more jaded heroine we’re seeing. One who is taking the nuclear option through fairy tale means.

Cinderella is a fairy tale that I find weirdly fascinating, particularly in terms of the way adaptations have changed it to try and make the central character seem relatable to a modern audience, as opposed to her feeling like a passive, pliant drip of a protagonist. It’s a very hard line to walk! My undergraduate dissertation explored how this was one in Witches Abroad and Ella Enchanted, while my highest-marked assignment for my MA was a curation of adaptations of the story across every UK key stage, looking specifically at feminist adaptations. I feel like I ‘collect’ (through watching and reading) adaptations of Cinderella in the same way I collect adaptations of Pride and Prejudice.

Grushin is clearly aware of the tropes of fairy tales, and has presented the reader with a three act story. The first act is our heroine visiting the witch, and her fairy godmother arrives to try and intervene. Through the magic of the potion, we are granted an overview of the marriage to this point, how she has been driven to this. The witch is a pragmatist, a woman who is cynical and ready to accept that all men are awful, all women need to just get rid of them to be happy. The fairy godmother thinks you just need to hang around and try harder, particularly if you were in love once, but even her chants falter as she watches 13 years of increasing disinterest, infidelity, and isolation. It’s a lovely nod to Shakespeare (and, by extension, Terry Pratchett and Witches Abroad, hello BA dissertation), with three women – a fairy tale ‘maiden’, a fairy god ‘mother’, and a hag – crowded around a cauldron. Threes are a fairy tale staple, three wishes, three fairies, three tasks, and now these three women, as part of the wider three act structure. This is a novel with layers, and with an understanding of folk and fairy tales that really shines through.

The second act is quest. There’s the quest she takes when she believes her husband the Prince has been cursed, travelling across the land to find a cure. Then the quest of weaving a shirt from nettles in silence as a way to break the spell. She suffers, she works, she toils to try and save a man she believes is still in there. This section is another delight, with nods to The Snow Queen, Robin Hood, The Princess and the Frog and The Seven Ravens. And then the final act, Cinderella tries to find her freedom. She pushes through a wood in an homage to Hansel and Gretel, finds a house straight out of There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, crosses paths with the Twelve Dancing Princesses and Sleeping Beauty.

This novel has layers and it alternates peeling them back with poking holes directly through to give us clues to what the reality might be. From magical potions to aid depression and keep the heroine placid that come in little orange bottles, to the concern of her stepsisters. Numbers of children which change constantly, characters who become less like caricatures as the story progresses. The story starts deep, deep in the fairy tale, straight out of a traditional Cinderella, but then as the heroine begins to accept her journey, passes gradually forward in time. The twelve dancing princesses are hedonistic flappers in a perpetual jazz age, while later appearances are 1950s suburbia.

There’s also a whole subplot with generations of mice, building society and religions around their progenitors, the two little mice that befriended Cinderella at the beginning of the story. It’s baffling, satirical and really rather complex, a surprising sidebar to the fairly dark main storyline. I’m not entirely sure how I felt about it, but it was a rather impressive epic satire of human social history.

It reminded me a lot of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and the magic realism you can find in Jeanette Winterson, although it didn’t go as graphic or as dark as either of them. It’s sexual, sad, dealing with mental health, the role of a woman within a marriage and as a mother, but specifically when she feels unmoored in both those roles. What does society expect of her? What does she expect of herself? How deep is her denial and delusion about her relationship, can she even admit the reasons she is there in the first place?

If you are interested in feminist fiction, dark fairy tale adaptations that are complex and thoughtful, this is worth a look. It plays with structure, timelines, and folklore in a way that shows a deep understanding of the genre in both the way it builds stories, but also the way it treats women within them. It’s not an easy book, or a quick read, but there is so much to unravel here. It ticked a lot of my fairy tale boxes, even if it wasn’t my usual sort of happy read, and was clever, deft and masterfully built.

Briefly:

  • A complex, multi-act story that begins as an adaptation of Cinderella, but plays with other European fairy tales and explores the structure of stories, the architypal characters, and how they are treated in the narrative. This is woven around a story of a woman that is trying to find her truth and happiness.
  • There’s a certain level of heavy allegory which becomes more obvious as the book continues, but what I find interesting is that as the characters progress the ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ become muddier. This marries with them becoming less physically extreme as well, becoming more human and nuanced.
  • I can’t remember exactly when we discover the main character’s name, but I think it’s far later in the book than you would expect. In much the same way fairy tale characters often are given roles rather than names so they can be universal, there’s something to be said about the way Grushin plays into these tropes and then carefully flips and subverts them.

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