Both sisters read and review the same book, a fairy tale retelling.
This quarter, for our third and final book club pick for 2020, we are discussing Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson. We've already shared our individual reviews (you can find Mary's here and Elizabeth's here), and now it's time for us to respond to the six questions we cover with each book club discussion. Normally, we have an actual conversation which we record to share in both video and transcript form. However, as Elizabeth has been ill, this month we've each written up our answers separately instead.
Remember that you can join in this discussion, whether by commenting here or by joining our Enchanted Garden Book Club Facebook group!
Mary & Elizabeth Discuss the Book
In what ways is the retelling similar to the original fairy tale? (setting, character, plot, magic, theme)
The story starts out much the same. Two sisters went to the well/fountain as in the original story. The first gives water to the old woman and is rewarded with the gift of diamonds and flowers coming from her mouth as she speaks. She returns home, and the mother learns of what happened and immediately sends for the other daughter in the hopes of a repeat. The second daughter gets gifted with snakes and toads.
Tomlinson does also use a number of details from the original “Diamonds and Toads” tale collected by Perrault. The fairy who gives the sisters the ‘gifts’ appears first as an old woman, and then as a magnificent lady. When the second sister is sent to the well to collect water, she brings the best silver pitcher in the house, too (although in Tomlinson’s telling this is of necessity rather than by choice). It’s also true that the sister who receives the gift of flowers and gems falling from her lips ends up in a romantic relationship with the ‘King’s son’ in both the original and Tomlinson’s telling.
How are the two stories different? (setting, character, plot, magic, theme)
The setting is a big change. The original tale had a European setting, whereas this version is set in a fictional India.
In the Perrault version, they are full sisters instead of step-sisters. In both, the mother is widowed.
The theme is different as well. The moral of The Fairies is that you get rewarded for your actions. The moral of Diamonds and Toads is more about finding the value in yourself and your gifts and how they can be used to help others.
The magic is the same, but instead of being cast by a fairy, it is a Goddess who judges each girl. The Goddess asks: “What is your soul’s desire?” Neither answers aloud, but we learn Diribani wishes for beauty. Tana we learn desires “To keep my family safe.”
The good sister still gets noticed by royalty due to her gifts, and the second outcast in a way, but the second sister learns value in her gifts rather than being miserable and dying alone. We have essentially two blessings instead of one being a curse.
“You saw Naghali-ji?” children would ask Tana in later years. “What does she look like?”
And, of course, the story elaborates about what happens to each sister after they are gifted and leave home, as that is the majority of the book.
As Mary said, the setting is a big change here. The biggest core change to the story, however, is that there is no longer a divide between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ sister. The first sister (Diribani) who is gifted with flowers and gems is still the ‘beautiful’ sister, and is very kind-natured, as befits her role from the original tale. However, the second sister (Tana) is not the ill-behaved, selfish person of the original story, and the snakes she spills from her lips aren’t a punishment or a curse, but instead her own unique gift to reflect what she wished for most (as Mary indicated, to protect her family). She does view it as a curse, and is heavily-laden with self-doubt and self-deprecation; a good part of the story (and my favorite element of Tomlinson’s novel) is devoted to the two sisters learning that Diribani’s gems and flowers are not as straight-forwardly positive as she’d first thought, and that Tana’s snakes aren’t at all a curse (they actually end up saving the country from a plague, and the sisters from the primary villain of the story).
It was interesting that Tomlinson decided to make the two sisters step-sisters; it makes for a difference from the Perrault version of the story, but actually returns it to the oral version of the tale which Perrault collected (he changed the step-sisters to full sisters to better distinguish it from the Cinderella tale).
Did the retelling retain enough of the original to be satisfying? Why or why not?
It did not retain the moral aspect of the original story, of being rewarded for your good or bad deeds. But the basic concept of the well and encountering a magical being who judges and gifts with diamonds and toads during speech is the same. So in that aspect, I would say yes, it was a satisfying retelling.
I agree with Mary here. It retained enough of the original to be readily recognizable as a variation on the tale, but Tomlinson twisted enough elements to put her own themes and moral into the story.
What did the retelling do better than the original?
The characters definitely had more depth and agency. The original followed the common trope of the girl getting married off to a king or prince with no romance or agency. It’s simply part of that “happily ever after”. In Diamonds and Toads, Diribani does fall for the prince, and it is implied at the end that they will marry. She is noticed due to her gifts, but he does not marry her for them. In fact, as his brother is in line for the throne, to marry her would be seen as a threat and would put both their lives at risk. It is only after she no longer has her gift that they can be together. The love interests of both sisters see the value in the girls’ hearts, not in their gifts.
In addition to Mary’s points, I’d add that it was nice to see Tomlinson explore at least some of the ways that having the gift of endless flowers and precious stones could actually be a negative (Diribani is essentially held captive by her gift and has no control over what is done with the riches she creates), and how having endless snakes could be a positive (they protect Tana and deal with the rodent problem which is spreading the plague throughout the country). There’s a lot of welcome nuance that Tomlinson’s twist on and expansion of the tale adds to it.
What gaps did the retelling fill in that were missing in the original?
More spelled out consequences for the gifts, and having the girls actually learn from them. Other character reactions than just the mother. Some saw Tana’s gifts of toads and snakes as a blessing, some feared her. Even with Diribani’s gifts of flowers and toads some hated her for it or wanted her gifts for themselves. Her mother wanted to hide her gift.
All of the characters are certainly more believable and relatable in Tomlinson’s version of the story. As Mary said, and as I indicated in my answer to the previous question, a lot of nuance was added to the tale and it was expended upon; it’s not so much that the original tale had troublesome gaps, as that a fuller look was taken at what the original plot elements might actually entail when looked at in detail.
Any other thoughts on the story?
I loved how innocent and generous Diribani was. When she first got her gifts, she did not want to hide them. All she thought of was all the good she could do with her newfound wealth:
“Generosity is an admirable quality, but you must take care,” she warned.
I also really noticed and appreciated the echoes throughout the story that tied the sisters together despite them being apart. The story opened with Diribani encountering toads, snakes, and other creatures (which ends up being Tana’s gift). Tana is introduced working with and assessing jewels (the jewels being Diribani’s gift). Later, on parting, Tana goes to the temple and is surrounded by the smells of flowers. Whereas Diribani goes with the prince and enters snake territory. This continues with other instances of remembrances of their sister. It was a nice interwoven thread entwining the two paths.
Mary made some really good points here. I’d add that I enjoyed how both sisters went on personal journeys due to the impetus of their gifts which refined their positive traits. Diribani’s generosity and her desire to spread beauty were originally paired with a naivete that led to problems for her and those around her; her experiences over the story led to her being less naive and learning how to more effectively spread the good she wanted to share, and how to recognize different sorts of beauty. Tana’s impulse to protect and provide for her family was paired with a very negative view of herself; she started out as her own harshest judge, and couldn’t even believe the man she had a romantic interest in might possibly be interested in her because she wasn’t as beautiful as her sister. However, over the course of her personal journey, she learned how to value herself for her own unique skills and talents.
I do have some thoughts on the setting (which I won’t really delve into here; I discussed them in my review).
I was somewhat disappointed in the ending: it simultaneously felt too abrupt and yet also tied the specific conflict of the climax up in too neat of a bow for me. There are long-reaching political/social issues set up throughout the novel that it seems Tomlinson expects us to just hand-wave away as having been resolved by secondary characters off-screen, as it were.
I also felt that it was pretty obvious that Tana simultaneously had a far worse time of it than Diribani did, and yet also was far more important to the resolution of the plot and the defeat of the villains within it than Diribani. Not necessarily a negative, no, but it did feel oddly uneven when the idea of the novel seemed to be pushing for both sisters to be different-but-equally-good.