The Eye Is Always Caught by the Light, but Shadows Have More to Say…
Gregory Maguire is best known for Wicked, his take on the life of the Wicked Witch of the West, but due to the fact that 2012 seems to be the year of Snow White (with two big-budget films based on the classic fairytale heading into cinemas) I thought that I’d start with his retelling of the girl “with skin as white as snow.”
With a tale so familiar, it’s always intriguing to see how a writer will approach the known aspects of the story. In this case our Snow White is Bianca de Nevada, who lives in the farming estate of Montefiore amidst the rolling hills of Italy in the year 1502. Her existence is happy enough, for her widower father Don Vicente dotes on her. Yet change is on the horizon with the arrival of two famous figures, the children of the pope: Cesare and his sister Lucrezia. Yes, in this version, the Evil Queen is played by none other than Lucrezia Borgia.
The Borgias have a commission that Vicente is forced to accept in exchange for his daughter’s safety: to leave home on a years-long quest for a holy relic, the branch from the original Tree of Knowledge, said to have three apples still growing upon it. Fearing it to be a hopeless prospect, Vicente is reluctant to go, especially if it means leaving his only daughter in Lucrezia’s dubious protection…
The story switches frequently from third-person to first-person narration, as well as from prose to the occasional segment of poetry, and the characters’ points of view change from chapter to chapter. Maguire writes beautifully (at times I could feel the Italian sun and smell the scents of the countryside, both sweet and rank), but the story goes by at a snail’s pace. Although Maguire provides some fascinating twists on the cast of characters, the story itself follows a fairly predictable pattern. It has a few innovative threads, such as Vicente’s journey and the identity of Lucrezia’s children, but by the final chapters it has settled into a straightforward retelling of the disguised Queen’s threefold attempt on Snow White’s life with comb, corset laces and poisoned apple.
That said, there’s plenty of interest to be found in the characters. Vain and temperamental, Lucrezia makes for a formidable version of the Evil Queen, with an intriguing spin on her hatred of Bianca. After the young girl briefly captures Cesare’s attention, Lucrezia is plagued by jealousy after his death as to the precious minutes of attention that were wasted on her. It provides a unique alternative for the reasons behind the traditional Queen’s animosity (jealousy over Snow’s youth and beauty), but Maguire relies too heavily on the reader’s awareness of the obsessive, incestuous relationship between the historical Borgia siblings, and so doesn’t really provide a lot of insight into this potentially fascinating bit of psychology. Lucrezia does, however, get an unforgettably spine-chilling final scene.
The dwarfs are a delight. Living outside of time and human perception, they take it upon themselves to craft a device that will allow them to move more freely in the world, and give themselves some semblance of form and identity. Thus they create the infamous mirror, which ends up hanging on the wall of Vicente’s manor house. In trying to retrieve it, the eighth dwarf ends up following Vicente on his voyage, whereas the remaining seven dwarfs are profoundly changed by their involvement with Bianca.
As for Bianca herself, she is a pleasant but fairly bland rendering of the fairytale princess (but then, aren’t they all). Maguire takes the typical route of making her character-arc one of burgeoning maturity and the transition from girl to woman. More interesting are his twists on the portrayal of the huntsman, the prince and the poisoned apple, as well as his original characters: the earthy cook Primavera Vecchia and the smarter-than-he-looks priest Fra Ludovico.
Though the Italian setting is beautifully rendered, it has very little impact on the story itself (perhaps the tale of Snow White is simply better suited to the Gothic forests and damp castles of Central Europe), and though there is an attempt to provide commentary on the fairytale’s subtext (the fall from grace, lost innocence, temptation) with some heavy-handed symbolism (the apple, menstrual blood) it often feels out of place alongside the historical figures of Lucrezia and Cesare. Still, this is a matter of taste, and perhaps the melding of genres will work for another reader.
Altogether, Mirror Mirror is a mixed bag. If you have the patience to withstand the slow pacing, there are plenty of interesting ideas to be explored here, as well as several vivid characters and a genuinely creative take on the famous fairytale. Despite the meandering pace, the shortness of the chapters make it fairly easy to keep turning pages, as does Maguire’s beautiful prose and imagery.