I’ll spare you the rant about how much I love this fairy tale. But as you’re probably not reading all my posts, I will say: I love East of the Sun and West of the Moon as I love few other fairy tales.
And this, hands down, is the best retelling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon that I have ever read.
The most difficult—and most defining—points for someone retelling this fairy tale as a novel are obvious to me: 1) That the dynamic between the girl and the bear/stranger during her captivity must be engaging and heartfelt, and 2) the portrayal of the girl’s journey to find the land east of the sun and west of the moon must be strong and captivating. As you will know if you’ve read my review of Ice (which did well enough with point 2 but failed with point 1 in my opinion), I’ll enjoy a retelling well enough if it does either point justice. But this exceeded my expectations on both points.
Pattou tells her story from the point of view of 5 characters: Rose (the main character), Father (as in Rose’s), Neddy (Rose’s brother), the White Bear and the Troll Queen. If you are unaware of the fairy tale and are reading this anyway, it’s no spoiler to tell you that the Troll Queen is the villain. And Pattou’s portrayal of her is sympathetic and gentle, which astonished me. Any story which allows you to sympathize with the villain while still finding them abhorrent is a masterpiece in my mind. Because in real life, there is no person whom no one likes at all. If there is such a person, they would be hard-pressed to become a true villain, for the world would fall into line against them. Yet so many works of literature seek to portray the world and its people in black and white, good or bad, that this has very nearly become the norm. Pattou’s ability to turn the Queen into a woman whom you hate and despise on principle but understand anyway is a testament to her excellent storytelling skills.
As is the relationship between Rose and the Bear. Never have I seen a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, let alone East of the Sun and West of the Moon or Cupid and Psyche, with this kind of dynamic, gripping, wonderful relationship. It begins with Rose’s obsession with a bear she believes she sees in her childhood, and turns to fear as he steals her away. It’s utterly astounding how, straight until the very end, this relationship remains alive and constantly in motion. Never is there a point where it comes to a halt and diminishes in interest as many romances tend to do. Even after love has been acknowledged, even after Rose loses and finds the Bear again, it remains in motion.
And where Ice was enjoyable for the strength of character and magic that the main character’s journey presented in an unmagical world, East does the exact opposite. There is no magic in Rose’s journey (except, perhaps, if you squint and interpret as you please), and rather than gaining passion through the necessity of the journey, Rose rather slows down and learns patience and the strength that lies in perseverance. Nevertheless, her journey is wonderful, and the characters who help her along the way, though entirely unmagical, are fun, unique and well-developed individuals.
I can’t vouch for the story’s historical accuracy, as I don’t claim to know that much about the settings in which the events of this book transpire. But to my inexpert mind, the true, historical setting of the book made the story all that more captivating and gripping, carrying me a mere step away from the idea that these events may truly have transpired.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
My absolute favorite detail about this book was the dresses. In the fairy tale, in case you didn’t know, the girl has an apple, a comb and a spinning wheel, all gold, which she deliberately shows to the troll princess who covets them and offers the girl one night with the prince in exchange. So when the three dresses were introduced, I may have rolled my eyes and presumed to know exactly what would become of these dresses.
And oh, how Pattou defied my expectations with her brilliance. For in typical fairy tale fashion, all three dresses come in use. But not in the way they did in the original story. It is Rose’s friendship with a troll servant in the bear’s palace that takes the place of the golden apple, comb and spinning wheel, for he clears the prince’s mind in order to prepare him to meet Rose. And when the prince comes up with the idea of asking the troll queen to wash the tallow from his shirt, it is entirely his own idea, undiscussed with Rose. He knows that she can because she always did wash it for him. And that, all by itself, is more captivating a tale than the version in which he and the girl confer on how to escape the trolls’ clutches to come up with this plan.
This was a beautifully written, wonderful book. 9.5/10.