Alex Flinn has become known for her fairy-tale novels which interweave the magic and plot elements of fairy tales with a modern setting, and Towering is no exception. In many ways, this is a fairy straightforward retelling of the Rapunzel tale; the overall plot points mirror the original tale, with the setting and addition of extra details being what distinguish the novel from the story which inspires it. Flinn tells the tale by alternating between the perspectives of the two main characters: Rachel (the Rapunzel figure) and Wyatt (the prince figure). She sets Towering in modern upstate New York. There is magic at play, but it is a world in which most people do no know that magic is real (although the primary characters involved accept its existence quite readily).
I really wanted to like this book. On the surface, it's right up my alley: A light read YA novel that retells a traditional fairy tale with an interesting twist? That checks a lot of boxes for me! However, I ended up feeling instead that this was a waste of a potentially good idea for a retelling. My qualms with respect to this book are difficult to explain without spoiling key elements of the plot; I'll save most of my detailed thoughts for my discussion with Mary as part of the Enchanted Garden Book Club later this month, and will give a brief overview below.
As a spoiler-free summary of my concerns, I will say this: While the modern magical setting and some of the particulars Flinn uses to represent and flesh out the details of the Rapunzel tale (particularly her depiction of the stolen lettuce from the original tale) are interesting, they do not make up for an overall lack in the characters themselves. Key decisions made by the characters involved feel inexplicable or rely on tired tropes, and the interpersonal relationships--in particular the romantic ones--are problematic, not simply because they exemplify problematic behaviors and ideas, but because they do so uncritically, at times even romanticizing said behaviors and ideas.
I wouldn't want the primary intended audience of this book (young adults) to romanticize the relationships and actions depicted within it. While there is drinking and drug use depicted, as well as teenage sex and resulting pregnancy, these depictions are not the source of my concern. What bothers me is the portrayal of what is, at core, stalking and manipulation as romantic behavior, and immediate infatuation as a 'destined to be together'/'love at first sight' which should not be questioned. The life lessons internalized by the characters and supported by Flinn's depiction of them similarly tend to feel problematically off--this is even more difficult to try to explain without going deep into spoilers for the book, but suffice it to say for now that I would not want anyone to internalize the 'morals' that these characters take from their experiences, or emulate their decisions.
In summary: Towering is a straightforward retelling of "Rapunzel" with an interesting twist that is unfortunately undermined by the details of the characters' actions and thoughts, particularly in regard to their relationships with each other. It is a light, easy read that would be very suitable for its YA audience, except that it supports and romanticizes behaviors that are dangerously problematic. I wanted to be able to like and recommend it, but I was ultimately left feeling disappointed and actually pretty concerned. While it's possible that I am more sensitive to the particulars of this book that I found concerning, I nonetheless would not recommend it, especially since there are so many other fairy-tale novels which do a better job of either eliminating problematic features of the tales which inspire them, or illuminating those problems in a critical way. Rather than doing either of those things, Towering left me feeling that it introduced new problematic features to the "Rapunzel" tale.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.