Ahhhh, fairy tale twists. I’m an admitted fan. Why do we love these re-imaginings of standard childhood literary fare so much? Is it because it gives us permission to return to the comfort of the nursery while still maintaining the illusion of reading an “adult” book? Perhaps. But I prefer a simpler explanation: we all love intelligent escapism. And that is exactly what Blackwell has provided in While Beauty Slept, her third novel.
Blackwell wisely chose a seemingly insignificant, yet ever-present royal servant and companion to tell the ‘true’ story of Sleeping Beauty. Elise Darliss, young and destitute and with only her mother’s mysterious long-ago royal servitude to recommend her, arrives at the castle desperate for employment. Hard work, the rare ability to keep her mouth closed, and a dash of good luck (or is it a bit of dark magic?) ensures Elise’s quick rise through the ranks until she finds herself serving the Queen herself and privy to all the castle intrigues.
Elise’s voice is both sympathetic and compelling. Told in the past tense, she continually drops tantalizing hints of the tragedy that is about to befell them all while creating a world that would someday produce the legend of Sleeping Beauty. Royal dynastic battles for the crown play out in the background while Elise herself grows to adulthood, experiencing heartbreak and discovering truth about her own parentage along the way.
Blackwell’s previous writing experience in the romance genre serves her very well here as she creates several restrained love affairs. Most notable, perhaps, is Elise’s marriage of convenience (necessity?) to an erstwhile rogue of a knight who eventually proves himself to be something quite unexpected. Despite the romance, don’t expect Elise to sit around waiting for a knight in shining armor to save her. No helpless princesses will be found in this book, thanks in large part to Blackwell’s own daughter. (See her interview here.) Attention to secondary characters and plot lines is impressive throughout the entire novel and several themes are constantly being woven at once.
The novel’s most striking feature is that for all it’s twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, Rose - affectionately nicknamed Beauty - plays a very small role in the story. In case you’re wondering, this is a good thing. It gives the story a depth and sense of realism that comes from deeper knowledge legends have only a grain of truth to them. We expect the ‘true story’ to have only seeds of the familiar - and that is precisely what Blackwell has delivered.
Title: While Beauty Slept
Author: Elizabeth Blackwell
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books