I’ve read, loved, studied, and taught fairy tales all my life. Every three years I co-teach a graduate school fairy tale course and, since 1990, I’ve been doing a Cinderella unit with my fourth graders. So I’m always interested in new versions of these old tales as well as original ones. At the same time, because many of these come up short for me, I am a wary reader of them, especially those featuring feisty oppositional heroines who are too often pallid cousins of Gail Carson Levine’s Ella and Patricia Wrede’s Cimorene. So I was both curious and dubious as I started reading Catherine Murdock’s Princess Ben. And here I am, after finishing it last night, having enjoyed it sufficiently to want to write about it at length. (I don’t write that many book reviews here and, in fact, started writing this casually over at goodreads and then realized that it might actually be decent enough to post here for more to see.)
So getting to the book itself, what was it that I liked so much? First of all, I was captivated immediately by the mannered writing style and voice. Murdock has really pulled off that old-fashioned first-person epistolary style and voice; it is very nicely done indeed. At first I was very conscious of this as I read (in a good way — I was simply enjoying her sentences and vocabulary) , but once I got into the plot I stopped paying attention; I’m guessing she sustained it all the way through. For the last few years I’ve been listening to a lot of Dickens, Collins, and now Eliot so I’m very conscious of this old-fashioned style and it grates on me when writers try it unsuccessfully. So bravo to Murdock for pulling it off.
The characters are all very complex — no one is totally bad or totally good; a very nice way of deepening and complicating the usual good/bad cast of characters in traditional fairy tales. I began thinking they would be stock versions or variations or opposites of the traditional types and enjoyed the way every single one of them turned out to be more nuanced than I originally thought they were. My main quibble would be with Ben’s parents. They are left as single-dimensional ghosts of her memory and perhaps that is as it should be, given her circumstances, but I did feel that I wanted to know more about them, especially her mother. For a while I did wonder about Ben’s gluttony, thinking Murdock was going for a large-princesses-are-lovable-too. But she went a different and original direction that I found worthwhile (and I’m not usual one for psychological meanings, but this was interesting enough for me to feel okay with it).
The plot is captivating, engaging, and kept me reading and guessing. If I were on an award committee this year I would want to consider harder the climax of the story and whether it is a bit out-of-nowhere. (Won’t say more for fear of spoilage.) But since I’m not, I’ll just leave it as is. It worked just fine for me.
So, all in all, a very elegantly written and satisfying literary fairy tale.