I came to Gregory Maguire's fairy tale retellings via a somewhat unusual route. Whereas most of Maguire's fans began with his take on L. Frank Baum's Oz, in particular through the novel Wicked and its incredibly successful Broadway musical adaptation, I began with his Cinderella retelling: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. After falling in love with that book, I eagerly devoured Wicked and was very excited to receive the gift of his then-newly-published book Mirror, Mirror (published 2003). I'll admit that I came into my first reading of Maguire's Snow White retelling with certain expectations. Both Confessions and Wicked subverted the tales upon which they were based by giving the traditional 'villains' of those tales voice, and providing them opportunity to be the heroines in their own story. In particular, I expected that Mirror, Mirror might have a similar approach to its fairy tale as Confessions; I anticipated that Maguire would make use of an historical setting where any of the magical elements of the tale are eliminated in favor of a more realistic take on the tale. These expectations were very much wrong; despite surface similarities, Mirror, Mirror is very different from Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Revisiting this book over a 15 years later, I am better able to recognize just why it was that reading Mirror, Mirror left me with an uncomfortable feeling of disappointment, as though I were the one who had bitten into a glossy apple only to taste a poisonous bitterness.
I will not go into full detail on my thoughts regarding Mirror, Mirror here, both to limit spoilers for those who might want to approach this novel for the first time, and because I will be saving much of what I have to say for my Book Club discussion with Mary (which will be posted this weekend in the Enchanted Garden). What I will focus on here is providing an overview of what to expect going into this book, and of the rather mixed feelings I have with respect to it.
Mirror, Mirror begins in a way that is, indeed, very reminiscent of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, in that it is clear that the setting for this tale is an actual historical place and time. I have written about the primary places and historical figures Maguire includes in my post in the Enchanted Garden. However, it deviates almost immediately as fantastical elements which would be treated as superstition in Confessions are portrayed as simple fact--a theme which compounds throughout the book as supernatural creatures and occurrences with no possible natural explanation become increasingly prominent. The most prominent way in which Mirror, Mirror differs from books such as Wicked and Confessions, however, is in the portrayal of the villain of the tale. If Maguire had kept with the precedent he set up in his previous books, readers might expect that the protagonist of Mirror, Mirror would be the 'evil' stepmother/queen in the tale. At the very least, they might expect that this character would be humanized in a way that leaves readers wondering at the fairness of her characterization as the antagonist. However, instead of taking the fictional character of the 'evil queen' and granting her a chance to be understood in a more positive light, Maguire takes an actual historical figure (Lucrezia Borgia) and dehumanizes her into someone as vain, self-obsessed and sinister as the queen in the classic Grimm tale.
Mirror, Mirror can be uncomfortable to read at times because of how Maguire deals with sexuality, especially of pre-pubescent and pubescent girls. Part of this can be understood as deliberately shedding a light on what was historical reality. Lucrezia Borgia was married at the age of 13, after all. However, something about the way Lucrezia is portrayed, in particular, was deeply unsettling to me. There’s a judgmental undertone to descriptions of her dying her hair and taking care with her appearance in other ways. She was clearly victimized at a very young age by both her older brother and others within the context of the story. However, she is very much depicted as a jealous, heartless woman who has turned her own attractiveness into a tool to manipulate others for her own gain, and who cannot truly see anything outside of herself.
In contrast, whereas Bianca de Nevada (Snow White) is similarly sexualized, Maguire portrays this as an imposition laid upon her and something to which she is exposed against her will rather than something internal to her character. Much like the white color for which she is named is actually a reflection of every color, Bianca is a mirror reflecting back the character of those who look upon her. Bianca herself is 'pure' and, really, somewhat featureless. Things happen to her and around her rather than her truly causing the action of her own tale.
I could write an entire essay exploring the symbolism and themes within Mirror, Mirror. Much like the onions that Maguire frequently references and uses for imagery and metaphor throughout it, there are layers upon layers which can be picked apart to get to the core of this book. Perspective, color, light, identity, and sexuality are only some of the themes on prominent display throughout the novel. I will explore some of my thoughts on these themes in the Book Club discussion to follow.
If you are looking for a somewhat surreal, dark, adult fairy tale retelling, then Mirror, Mirror might be just the read for you. If you are looking for a twist that does some interesting new thing to the story of Snow White, turning it on its head the way Wicked and Confessions do with their respective tales, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are a fan of historical fiction, particularly of the Italian Renaissance, then this could either be a very interesting or a very frustrating read for you, depending upon how you view the liberties Maguire takes with the historical figures presented.
I would not recommend Mirror, Mirror for light reading. While it is a very rich book for readers willing to plumb the depths of the imagery and themes Maguire employs, it is not at all the escapist fantasy that many fairy tale retellings are. It may very well leave you feeling unsettled as you read--not a bad thing for a novel to do, but certainly something to keep in mind when determining whether/where on your reading list to place this book.
I'll readily admit that it was the thorough enjoyment that I took in Netflix's 2018 series The Haunting of Hill House which led me to seek out the novel which inspired it. What I discovered was a book that is very rightfully considered a masterpiece within the horror genre, and an author whose books and stories will certainly provide fodder to haunt my dreams for years to come. Shirley Jackson's writing, whatever else I may say about it, most certainly left an impression upon me.
The basic plot of The Haunting of Hill House arises from the premise that an investigator of ghostly phenomena (Dr. John Montague) has invited several individuals "who had, in one way or another, at one time or another, no matter how briefly or dubiously, been involved in abnormal events" to live with him in Hill House in order to study its reputed haunting. This premise has very clearly proven incredibly influential in ghost stories of all kinds in the decades since Hill House was first published back in 1959. I grew up reading books and watching films that were very much based around the idea of the paranormal investigators inviting a group of psychics and experts together to live in a haunted house in order to study it. I have to say that, while it's been done well in the time since, no one has improved upon Jackson's take on it.
Of the numerous individuals invited by Dr. Montague, only four replied. Of those four, only two actually came. The events that follow, while very much captivating, struck me as being less important than the tone in which Jackson conveys them, and the perspectives from which they are explored. The primary protagonist of the book is arguably one of Dr. Montague's two guests, one Eleanor Vance. Eleanor is a fascinating character who is at times completely relatable and at other times utterly incomprehensible. The transformation of Eleanor's character over the course of the story was, for me, the most beautiful--and horrible--aspect of this novel. I would go into more depth, but I would hate to spoil the experience for any uninitiated reader who might want to delve into this book after reading this review. Suffice it to say that even if you have seen the film adaptations of this work, it most certainly still contains surprises for you.
The tone Jackson employs in this novel reminded me of Henry James' novella The Turn of the Screw (first published in 1898). This is true both in that Hill House very much reads as a Gothic horror story, and also in that it left me with the same sense of unease and vague dissatisfaction in the end that I remember having as a child upon first reading The Turn of the Screw. There are no definitive answers given, and this is compounded by the fact that there is certainly reason to doubt the reliability of the narrator. If you have read and enjoyed Henry James, then you will almost certainly likewise enjoy Shirley Jackson; both wrote the sort of horror that leaves a reader feeling unsettled and confused rather than truly horrified.
In summary, it is for very good reason that The Haunting of Hill House is considered one of the best ghost stories ever written. If you enjoy ghost stories, Gothic fiction, or psychological horror, then you should absolutely give this--and Shirley Jackson's other written works--a read. If you do not appreciate ambiguity, or are simply not in the mood for reading something which will haunt you with its imagery and with lingering questions, then this is likely not the book for you. However, I do highly recommend it; let's all be delightfully unsettled together.
I have read Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak many times. It is a book which I found to be beautiful, haunting, and profound. Somehow, however, despite Speak's impact on me, I never sought out and read Twisted until this year, over a decade after it was first published. I mention Speak in context of my review of Twisted because, in many ways, the two books are companions to each other. Both place the reader within the confines of the protagonist's perspective; and in each the protagonist is a teen trying to simultaneously deal with high-school, relationships, trauma, and mental health.
Given the serious nature of the material Anderson covers in this book, as in her other books, a content warning may be warranted here: Twisted deals with several potentially-triggering topics, including suicide, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse. Anderson handles all of these topics with great care and thoughtfulness, but she also does not pull any punches as she delves into the depths of Tyler's troubled mind.
As I have come to expect from Anderson, this is a YA book that is a challenging, important read for both teenagers and adults. I would highly recommend this book in a guided reading setting; it would be an excellent selection for a book club, summer reading program, or as part of a class curriculum. Reading it and discussing it as a group helps to ensure everyone processes the difficult content in a healthy, helpful way. It also provides great opportunity for those who struggle with similar issues to the characters in the book to discuss their own problems while comfortably using the guise of discussing the characters.
Even if you are an adult who does not in any way work with teens, I still recommend that you give Twisted a read. This is a book to turn to if you are looking to challenge yourself or to work through similar problems to those listed in the content warning above.
Overall, I'd say that Twisted is a short, memorable, evocative realistic fiction novel. I would pair it with Speak as a must-read.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.