Review: Fairy Tale · Review: Romance

Book Review: East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Carole Bellacera

This is one of the most unconventional and brilliant ways of retelling a fairy tale that I’ve ever seen. I feel the need to preface my summary with this statement, because I know that the summary alone will alienate some people—I would have been one of those people, had I not had a passion for fairy tale retellings that supersedes any early judgements.

The premise of the story is a simple one: a politician’s lonely artist wife, Kayleigh “Leigh” Fallon, is attracted to a Norwegian exchange student, Erik, staying with her family. He’s her eldest son’s friend (mid-twenties) and her daughter has a crush on him: far too young for her. He declares his love for her; she lies and tells him that she feels nothing out of loyalty to her husband. But her marriage is fraying at the seams. Leigh hasn’t been happy in years and the realization that her husband is sleeping with his secretary is the last straw. She admits to Erik that she feels the same way, and an affair begins that will eventually tear her life apart.

Oh, and it is very much a retelling of the fairy tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Does that seem contradictory? Let’s take a look.

On Characterization

If you had asked me before I read this book, I’d have said that a story about an extramarital affair could only work for me with excellent writing and very delicate characterization.

While the writing is certainly excellent, I can’t say that the characterization overall is all that delicate. This is, at its core, a fairy tale. Erik is practically prince charming, handsome and charming to absolutely everyone; Bob, Leigh’s husband, is an entirely irredeemable villain who does nothing but make Leigh miserable with belittlement, neglect and disrespect. Leigh’s marriage is a deeply emotionally abusive one. She occasionally reflects on the man that Bob used to be, but unfortunately the Bob between the pages of this book is nothing but contemptible.

Similarly, Erik has his own family to contend with back home, and two of those characters are even more contemptibly selfish than Bob. They see only their wants and needs, and Erik is nothing more than a vehicle to them. They have no regard for him as a person, no regard for his feelings or even respect for his ability to think (more on that later).

Leigh and Erik’s love, meanwhile—because it is love, never just sex—is pure, strong, and true through all the trials that they endure. Even as their lives are torn to pieces, that never tarnishes the love between them, though they do occasionally lose their way.

So of course I root for them. Of course I want them to be together and be happy. Bob is sleeping with his young, beautiful secretary and utterly neglecting Leigh when she caves to her feelings for Erik after trying and trying to make her marriage work and at last finding that she can’t deny her feelings for Erik. In fact, Bob even pushes them together in some ways, as he suggests that Erik accompany Leigh to an event for a book she illustrated. Erik encourages and praises her art even as Bob showcases his disinterest and even mockery of his wife’s dreams and passions. I doubt that Leigh could be written to be anymore sympathetic without writing out her affair entirely.

This book truly shines in the portrayal of Leigh, and of her children, Mark, Melissa and Aaron. Leigh’s conflict is clear, and while it is easy to say that a woman in her situation (used, neglected, deeply unhappy, whose husband won’t even lift a finger to try to save their marriage when she begs) should just walk out on her husband, it is for her children that she stays. Furthermore, Bellacera’s writing is exceptional in conveying how trapped Leigh feels, conveying to the reader why she would choose to conduct an affair rather than leave her husband first. When everything falls apart (because of course it does), Bellacera is ruthless in portraying the children’s reactions. Nothing is easily mended, but as Leigh tries to reach out to her children once again, it is heartwarming to watch things mend. Perhaps the portrayal is somewhat cliched; but it’s also deeply heartfelt, portraying both the love between mother and children as well as the sense of betrayal that the children feel.

The Fairy Tale in the Story

I said that this was a retelling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon. Yes: this story about adultery, despite not containing a single drop of magic, is undoubtably a retelling of the fairy tale. I’ve covered “retellings” that have sketchy ties to the fairy tale, at best; this is not one of those. The entire story structure is derived from the fairy tale.

The Ice Palace / The Woman Labeled as Adulteress

It’s a little surprising in retrospect that this was the part that took me a little bit of time to work out how the two stories fit. For a long time, I was fixated on the notion that the miserable marriage was Leigh’s Ice Palace, and the discovery of her affair that turned her life upside down was her Forbidden Candle. But no, I realized. Leigh’s miserable marriage is the husbandman family’s impoverished life. Erik’s offer of love is the white bear’s offer of prosperity for the husbandman and his family, if he will only hand over his youngest daughter. Next Tuesday, I’ll publish a whole meta analysis of this moral conundrum that generally gets swept under the rug in adaptations of this and other fairy tales; the point is that relatively speaking, Leigh’s affair still leaves her with a much higher moral standing than the husbandman’s decision to turn his daughter over to the white bear.

So Leigh takes Erik’s offer of genuine love, just as the girl goes to the ice palace with the white bear. And for a time, Leigh is happy, just as the girl is happy, though there is an undercurrent of uncertainty: Leigh knowing that this can’t last because Erik will go back home, the girl wondering what has truly become of her family. Thus, Leigh and Erik’s affair is discovered—and Leigh’s family falls apart. Thus, the girl goes home and makes the mistake of telling her mother of the man who joins her in bed every night—and her mother gives her a candle.

The Mistake

The thing about this fairy tale is, there is a lag between the offer of temptation (the mother buys the magical candle) and the girl’s final decision (breaking the silent covenant with her bed mate and lighting the candle). The girl’s decision was a conscious choice, and that’s what makes the story so powerful.

In this version, it’s not temptation that leads Leigh to make her mistake, but loss of her ability to trust. After the discovery of her affair, she loses everything. She and Bob separate. Her children despise her. When she goes to Norway with Erik, she only sees obstacles. When it is revealed to her that Erik slept with someone else when he thought Leigh was lost to him and this woman is now pregnant, Leigh cannot find it in herself to trust that she is truly the one that he loves and wants when there are clearly younger, more beautiful options available to him. She cannot trust him when he says that he loves only her, and it is a misunderstanding. So she leaves him. And this is her mistake.

The Separation and the Journey for Redemption

The thing is, the girl in the fairy tale realized immediately that she’d made a mistake. She spends the rest of the story on a long journey searching for an impossible place and an impossible return of the love that she herself forfeited. Her prince, who used to be her white bear, is trapped in his world and brainwashed.

This is not the case for Leigh and Erik. Leigh resigns herself to her new life and focuses on picking up the pieces. She finds a new relationship that makes her happy, though it is nothing compared to what she had with Erik. Meanwhile, Erik resigns himself to a relationship with a woman he does not love anywhere near the way he loved Leigh, though he makes sure that she knows this. Unbeknownst to him, this woman believes that his feelings for Leigh are an infatuation that will inevitably fade; when they do not, she throws herself back into a long-standing affair with Erik’s married brother. Erik, believing himself the father of her unborn child, stays with her for the sake of her unborn child, oblivious to all of this.

Though the details have nothing in common, in spirit, somehow, this manages to be exactly the same story. Leigh’s journey, though made while she believes that Erik is now and forevermore just a memory for her and with no intention of trying to get him back, is her way of repairing everything that was broken in her life until she is capable of reaching the point where she can trust again, and be honest to her own desires. Erik, meanwhile, is being brainwashed just like his counterpart.

The Troll Kingdom / The Hospital

This is the climax of the fairy tale: where the girl tries and tries again to get the attention of her prince, but due to the troll princess drugging him, he remains asleep, and though she is right beside him, she cannot wake him. This until the day that he is tipped off not to drink, and he and the girl reunite at last to hatch a plan. Their plan succeeds and they flee the troll kingdom together, free to be together at last.

Erik and Leigh are both unknowingly in the same area as Leigh remains with her dying boyfriend in a hospital in Norway and Erik is at first investigating his wife’s claims, and then dealing with the fall-out from the discoveries. Leigh and Erik don’t interact directly until the very end, when they come across each other at a place both remember fondly, all demons conquered, mutually single again and ready to embark on a relationship at last.

This segment of the story breaks a little from the pattern, certainly, but again, the spirit of the story is there. Obstacles overcome, the story ends just as our two protagonists are at last beginning a relationship.

My Thoughts

The thing is, this book has plenty in it that would be infuriating to me if it were a straight up love story that began as adultery. Why is Bob such a caricature? I would wonder. Why doesn’t Leigh leave him, if he’s so horrible to her? Why do Erik’s wife and brother go to such ridiculously convoluted lengths to pretend that their baby is his?

But the moment I look at the story as a fairy tale, all of those points become irrelevant, and I instead find myself inspecting this book with wonder at how masterfully Bellacera has created a fairy story without a drop of magic in it. Her mastery of the craft, in my opinion, goes above and beyond some of the works of Master Hans Christian Andersen himself.

I liked it. It was an unusual way to retell a fairy tale and well worth the read.

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