It might be a strange thing for a 40-something person to say, but it's true: I adore fairy tales. Finding them remade entirely in novels, or even just slight nods, here and there, within a story. I'm wont to reach for my (lusciously-leatherbound) copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales in certain gloomy moods, as the bleakness and generally-dark outcomes somehow cheer me up. Anne Sexton's Transformations, a book of poems that retell fairy tales in dark stanzas and images, is one of my favorite-ever books.
When I was a kid, this affection was about magic and otherworldliness and my desire to be somewhere (or somehow) other. As an adult, the affection is deeper. It's more about how a good fairy tale can reveal something true about humanity, and how finding those pieces of myself within a tale is a sort of magic, sparkling and comforting all at once. It's still also about the darkness and bleakness, the penchant in human nature to make wrong choices and do bad things. A fairy tale, for me, is both revealing and covering: how it really feels to be a human, cloaked with bird wings and candy houses.
I'm always up for reading a new fairy tale.
Michael Cunningham's new book, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, might be subtitled "Fairy Tales for Grown Ups." Not that there's anything specifically lascivious. It just manages to capture that darkness in the originals and bring it in to the contemporary world. Or, at least, some of the tales are contemporary. "Poisoned" is about Snow White...but it is also about marriage and relationships and how what is really hard about them is that the newness cannot last. "Jacked" has the Jack who climbs the beanstalk, but it's also a tidy little summary of how it feels to parent teenagers. (It includes this paragraph, which I might have read 127 times: "Mothers, try to be realistic about your imbecilic sons, no matter how charming their sly little grins, no matter how heartbreaking the dark-gold tousle of their hair. If you romanticize them, if you insist on virtues they clearly lack, if you persist in your blind desire to have raised a wise child, one who'll be helpful in your old age...do't be surprised if you find that you've fallen on the bathroom floor, and end up spending the night there." Not that my sons are imbecilic, they're not, and I don't think I've romanticized them, but there is something that resonates with me there. Something about the contrast between the son you imagine and the one who stands in front of you, who can never be exactly what you imagined because while you created him in your body, the entire world creates who he turns out to be, standing in front of you.)
Rumpelstiltskin is there.
And a disturbing rendition of Beauty's beast.
And a tale I will never forget, "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" reimagined, which is also about marriage and relationships and enduring to the end and how sometimes it really is endurance that helps you manage.
I loved these tales so much.They are sardonic. They—most of them, except the very last—might start with "once upon a time" but they refuse to end up at "happily ever after" (as life, too, refuses).
And the drawings, by Yuko Shimizu? Perfect: black, white, stark, haunting.
Aside from The Sleeper and the Spindle, it might just be my favorite collection of fairytale retellings.
(HERE is my list of favorite fairy tale retellings, for your perusing pleasure.)