This reading group guide for The Fairest of Them All includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Carolyn Turgeon. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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An exploration of what happens when fairy-tale heroines grow up and don’t live happily ever after, The Fairest of Them All
brings new life to the stories of Rapunzel and Snow White.
Living in an enchanted forest, Rapunzel spends her days tending a mystical garden with her adoptive mother, the witch Mathena. When Rapunzel’s beautiful voice and golden locks attract a young prince, even Mathena’s considerable power cannot stop him from climbing Rapunzel’s hair and falling into her arms. But their afternoon of passion is fleeting, and the prince must return to his kingdom betrothed to another. Years later, the prince is now a king, and his wife, the queen, has died under mysterious circumstances, leaving him with a young daughter, Snow White. At last free to marry the woman he has never stopped dreaming of, the king returns for Rapunzel and makes her his queen and a mother to Snow White. But when Mathena’s wedding gift of an ancient mirror begins speaking to her, Rapunzel falls under its evil spell, and the king begins to realize that Rapunzel is not the beautiful, kind woman of his dreams. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How is The Fairest of Them All
different from the fairy tales upon which the novel is based? What are some of the similarities?
2. Many fairy tales have omniscient narrators, yet this novel is told from the point of view of Rapunzel. Why do you think the author made the decision to give us Rapunzel’s perspective? How did this influence what you felt about Rapunzel’s choices?
3. Many of us dream about living in a world of princes and princesses, where magic is real and a part of life. What aspects of Rapunzel’s and Snow White’s lives were appealing to you? What are some of the challenges you didn’t expect them to face?
4. Talk about what it’s like to revisit fairy tales you were familiar with when you were younger. What were some of your favorite fairy tales? What other “updated” fairy tales or myths have you read or watched recently?
5. Princes, kings, princesses, and witches are all common characters in fairy tales, and all exist in The Fairest of Them All
. How do the characters in this novel compare to the stereotypical princes, kings, princesses, and witches in other fairy tales? When did their actions surprise you?
6. Love of beauty and the complications of aging are important themes in The Fairest of Them All
; the king and Rapunzel are particularly obsessed with beauty. Discuss some of the pitfalls of a life lived in luxury and the need for everything to be beautiful.
7. At the end of the novel, Rapunzel thinks of Snow White: “She will be a good queen. One day, she will be a great one.” Why do you think Snow White would make a good queen? What made her father such a bad king?
8. Describe Snow White’s character and the changes she goes through over the course of the story. What did you think of her initial rejection of Rapunzel? How did their relationship evolve?
9. Although Rapunzel and Mathena know a great deal of genuine magic, much of their knowledge is simply an understanding of the earth and of the uses of nature. Why do you think this is associated with witchcraft? Recall some of the magical elements in the novel and their relationship to Mathena (for example: the stag and the magic mirror).
10. Death and rebirth are important themes in the novel. Rapunzel herself says, “…out of death comes life. Always.” What do you think this means in the context of the novel? Do you think this is also true of the world in which we live?
11. The conflict between religion and magic is one of the central issues of the story. Why do you think the church is so opposed to witches like Mathena? Why is everyone at the palace suspicious of Rapunzel, when (at least at first) she is helpful and kind?
12. Rapunzel’s magic mirror is what ultimately pushes her to attempt to have Snow White killed. Is the mirror evil and corrupting, or is it only a scapegoat for Rapunzel’s jealousy? Why?
13. Like many fairy tales, The Fairest of Them All
is largely about love, true love, lust, and infatuation. Unlike most fairy tales, it is also a story about heartbreak, loss, and violence. What do you think about the book’s take on love and infatuation? How does the novel’s more realistic take on these themes impact the power of the fairy-tale elements?
14. The revelations at the end of the story are foreshadowed early on. Did you catch any of these subtle hints from the stories Mathena told Rapunzel? How did the ending affect the way you viewed the rest of the story? What about how you viewed Mathena? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Do some research on the original Brothers Grimm stories of Snow White and Rapunzel. You can find them here: http://www.worldoftales.com/fairy_tales/Grimm_fairy_tales.html. Are they the same as you remember? How does reading the original change your interpretation of The Fairest of Them All
2. Write your own fairy tales! Using existing tales as a starting point, or starting completely fresh, come up with a brand-new story to share with your group.
3. Have a movie night with your book club! There are many great movie adaptations of classic fairy tales. If you like animated movies, try the Disney version of Rapunzel, Tangled
, or go classic with the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
. If you’re in the mood for something different, try Mirror Mirror
or , two recent adaptations with a creative take on the story. A Conversation with Carolyn Turgeon Have you always been interested in fairy tales, or did you come to them after becoming a writer? How did you come up with the idea to combine Snow White and Rapunzel?
I actually have always loved fairy tales, their combination of light and dark, the glitter and shimmer along with all that hatred and jealousy and eating of hearts! That’s kind of my aesthetic generally, beauty and darkness mixed together. My biggest literary influence was magic realism, though; I read One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a teenager and that very much influenced the kind of writing I wanted to do. I came to fairy tales with my second book, Godmother
, mainly because my first had been so hard to plot and figure out, and I thought it’d be so cool to go into a known story like Cinderella and bring it to life, with all the weird psychology that you know has to accompany things like being a fairy godmother or having a prince come to the rescue when you’ve been abused and alone for so long. And I’ve written three more since then! I like how much you can explore through them, using these archetypal female characters. The Fairest of Them All
is the first time I’ve taken two well-known fairy tales and combined them. I guess I was thinking about all those gorgeous, damaged young women in fairy tales who end up with the dashing prince, and also all those older women who are evil stepmothers or queens or witches. And it occurred to me that these are the same women, grown up. How else are those gorgeous young girls going to turn out, especially in worlds that value them for their youth and beauty above anything else? And when I fit Rapunzel and the evil stepmother from Snow White together, it made sense. They’re both beautiful, they’re both witches (Rapunzel is raised by a witch, so how could she not be one herself?), and presumably the stepmother was once young and in love and the fairest in all the kingdom. And what we don’t see in the original Rapunzel story is what happens later, when she gets older and is a little less dazzling than she was before. What do you think is so compelling about these stories, that they can be returned to and reworked again and again? Why are they such a rich mine of inspiration for you?
I don’t know what it is about them, honestly. I mean, some of the stories we tell and re-tell are awfully strange; look at some of the old versions of Snow White and you’ll see what I mean! But these are stories that people have told and retold for centuries, as moral lessons, as escapism, as a way of making sense of the universe. These stories often contain situations that are exaggerated versions of everyday ones so we can escape reality while also shining a light on it, and on our own hearts.
I really like going into these old tales to explore the psychology in them, make these characters flesh and blood and bone. I feel like these stories are part of who I am, stories that helped shaped my view of the world, and so there’s something very powerful to me about going in and rethinking them. What challenges did you face in expanding these fairy tales into a novel?
A novel gives you room to explore all the emotions and thoughts and motivations that inform the extreme behavior you see in these old tales. Like asking for the heart of Snow White. It’s shocking, but when you think about and explore the stepmother’s motivation, you realize that she’s playing out very commonplace emotions and insecurities. She’s getting older, she wants to be loved and admired, and attention is shifting from her to this gorgeous young girl. The original tales are all so short, you don’t really have time to explore all the complicated emotions you know are at play. And of course, there’s all kinds of backstory and setting and detail that you have to figure out and fill in. It’s a challenge, but it’s also the fun part. The Fairest of Them All is full of strong, powerful women, and generally has a feminist undercurrent. Was that intentional? Do you feel there’s anything like that in the original fairy-tale versions?
I think all my fairy-tale books have a feminist undercurrent. I’m interested in looking at the roles of women in these stories, and especially the relationships these women have with each other. The fairy godmother and Cinderella, for example, the mermaid and her princess rival from the Hans Christian Andersen story, Rapunzel and the witch, Snow White and the evil stepmother . . . There’s a lot of rivalry and anger and unhappiness in these tales, and I like to explore that and then see if there’s some way for these women to transcend their roles a bit and form alliances with each other. Female friendship is important to me, and there’s typically not a lot of room for it in the original stories, and certainly not in the Disney movies! In The Fairest of Them All
, the main characters are witches, too, so of course they’re powerful. How can the castle-bound prince compare with women who understand the earth and its magic? Mathena is a very unconventional witch—where did your inspiration for her character come from?
I wanted her to be sympathetic and warm and powerful, not the evil hag from the original Rapunzel stories. I don’t like that witches, and older women generally in fairy tales, are typically one-dimensional and evil, though of course Mathena is . . . complicated
. But I viewed her as deeply haunted and intensely charismatic and stunning and large-hearted, someone I would love to know in real life. She’s really a darker version of the sexy ex-circus-star gypsy-like librarian Mary Finn from my first novel, Rain Village
. In that book, I needed a mentor figure who would help a young misfit girl grow up to become a famous, beloved trapeze star. And so this woman emerged—this black-haired witchy librarian who keeps an herb garden, brews magic teas, counsels the lovelorn (in addition to performing her librarian duties!), and does whatever she pleases. And she’s the only one in the town who can look at this misfit girl and see the beauty and magic within her. Much of the magic that Mathena and Rapunzel practice is actually just an understanding of nature, and the uses of herbs. Do you see a connection between magic and nature?
Oh, yes. I see magic in birth, and in growing things, and in walking into a forest and knowing what each plant is and what it does, and in being deeply connected to your own body and the bodies of others. Knowing what plant someone should bite down on to relieve a toothache, what herb to put under your pillow to affect your dreams . . . I myself do not know the first thing about plants and gardens and very rarely spend time in forests, but it means that the world is even more full of mystery to me, and the natural world full of secrets and hidden attributes. What led you to work Greek mythology into the story? Do you see a connection between Greek myth and the fairy tales you’ve rewritten?
I loved Greek myths as much as I loved fairy tales when I was a kid, and they’re a bit mixed together in my head. I love the idea of a world filled with gods and mortals, where gods interfered in the lives of humans and changed them into trees or beasts or constellations. I knew that Mathena needed a system of belief different from the Christianity of the kingdom, and it made sense to me that she’d worship Artemis rather than a male deity, and that she’d tell Rapunzel stories about the gods. Both Mathena and her counterpart, Mary Finn, are storytellers, because to me that’s a pure kind of magic, using words to make the world appear brand-new. So of course Mathena tells Rapunzel these wonderful tales full of beauty and transformation; it’s a part of her character to do so, and it also helps orient the reader to her very different point of view. Probably the main reason I’ve focused on fairy tales rather than Greek mythology generally is Disney. Fairy tales were just more ingrained in the culture I grew up in because of those films, and so maneuvering within them feels like a more powerful thing to do. You have a master’s degree in comparative literature—did you study fairy tales in your academic career? What do you make of the extensive academic literature on fairy tales such as Snow White? Is it something you find interesting?
I actually didn’t study fairy tales while in school. I studied Italian literature (and English literature) as an undergrad and then went on to focus on medieval Italian poetry in graduate school. Part of my Italian studies, though, involved looking at story cycles, these old stories that were in One Thousand and One Nights
and made their way into Latin and then old Italian story collections like The Novellino
and The Decameron
, etc. I started what became my first novel the same week I was writing a paper that traced one of these stories and talked about how it changed over time. I guess that really stuck with me. The power of old stories, the power of refashioning them over and over again into something new, illuminating their hidden parts, giving them meanings and dimensions that weren’t there before. All storytelling is really just that—we’re telling the same stories over and over again in (hopefully) new ways—but with fairy tales you’re doing it more transparently.
In terms of Snow White, I have read multiple versions of the tale, which you can find online. The Disney version is weird enough, but the further back you go, the weirder it all gets. Which I love! One of the prominent themes of The Fairest of Them All is the relationship between infatuation, magic, and love—you describe wonderfully the confusion that surrounds Rapunzel in the evolution of her relationship with Josef. What do you think of the way “love” is used in fairy tales? Do you think there is more “magic” in real love, or infatuation?
Oh, I definitely think that infatuation feels like magic. Imagine being Rapunzel, out in the forest, seeing Josef for the first time with all his riches and glamour and that big gleaming horse. Of course she would imagine that that stricken, dazzled feeling was true love, combined with her excitement, her fantasy about what he represents, the way he could change her life in an instant. I think we often see this kind of instant love in fairy tales, especially in the Disney versions, not to mention in countless romantic comedies and The Bachelor
. In Mermaid
and The Fairest of Them All
, there are moments of instant love like this, but of course this kind of love will probably lead, eventually, to disappointment. We all know the idea that one person can swoop in and save and complete you is a bit flawed, and that the real magic comes with deep, lasting love. What are you working on next? Do you have more thoughts about reimagining fairy tales?
I’m working on a book about Beatrice Portinari, who’s the mysterious woman Dante Alighieri wrote about in The Divine Comedy
(she’s up in heaven and helps initiate his entire journey) and other works. No one really knows anything about her other than that she was an aristocratic girl who was contracted to marry (and did marry) a much older banker and then died at twenty-five. No one knows if Dante actually knew her or if they had any kind of actual relationship, romantic or otherwise. So I’ve imagined what I think is a really cool and surprising story about her. It’s not a fairy tale, but it’s a kind of retelling, a looking at something familiar through an unexpected point of view. Plus there will be a medieval setting, a little grittier than the one in Fairest
, but with a similar overlay of magic and beauty. I think that fans of my fairy tales will like it!
Of course, there are many, many more fairy tales to explore, so you never know . . .