I love fairy tale reworkings. At the same time their popularity of late has resulted in a lot of mediocrity and so when I come across something new I’m both excited and wary. Is it going to be a goofy-movie-Shrek-imitating-like thing or more in the vein of Michael Buckley’s Fairy Tale Detectives, Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guides, or Adam Gidwitz’s Grimm series? And if YA dark is it going to be a lame bodice-ripper or something with heft, like Tom McNeal’s Far Far Away? And so seeing a description of Katherine Coville’s debut novel The Cottage in the Woods on Edelweiss, I requested it on a whim and began reading it with very low expectations. And so what a lovely surprise when it turned out to be completely engrossing, a book I read steadily until I was done. In other words, reader, I liked it very much.
The story is a unique melding of a Regency Romance/Victorian Gothic set within a fairy tale world. Our heroine and narrator is Ursula Brown, a very proper young bear who has come to the Cottage in the Woods, the wealthy Vaughn family’s estate near Bremen Town, as their young cub’s governess. The three Vaughn bears live an elegant and refined life and Ursula slips into it without much difficulty, tolerating Mr. Vaughn’s stern admonitions, appreciating Mrs. Vaughn’s kind gestures, and falling very much in love with her sweet young charge, Teddy. But life in the area is not easy. The Enchanted — those animals who talk, dress, and act as humans do — are struggling with envy, prejudice, racial hostility, and out-and-out vigilantism from some of their human neighbors.
The publisher indicates that this is a reworking of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” It is indeed, but I don’t wish to give away just how. I will say that I found it an enormously clever rethinking of that particular story, very much in keeping with the literary tradition Coville is working in, that of the Victorian novel. I’ve been reading and listening to a lot of them these days and so I was very impressed with how well Coville used those tropes in her story. Ursula is very introspective, the various Enchanteds in her world are as proper and polite as anyone in an Austen, Bronte, Eliot, or Trollope novel. There is plenty of drama here, but not the swashbuckling sort of some of the other fairy tale workings. And while somber on occasion it isn’t as dark as some of the YA ones around.
There are so many clever fairy tale/nursery rhyme touches that also allude to the Victorian novel tradtion. For instance, Teddy’s nurse is an illiterate tippling badger who is quite jealous of our heroine and an amusing contrast to the cozy cute ones of Potter and others. Best of all is the Goldilock’s plot thread — it is a brilliant rethinking of the story within a classic Victorian Gothic setting. And I love the representation of the doctor who comes to examine her at one point with his Freud-like Viennese accent.
So keep an eye out for this one. I can’t wait to see what others make of it.