Twice Upon A Time: Rapunzel (The One with All the Hair) and Sleeping Beauty (The One Who Took the Really Long Nap)

By Wendy Mass [Book One: LibrarythingAmazon / Book Two: LibarythingAmazon]

RapunzelRapunzel’s twelfth birthday is just ruined when a witch shows up and announces that Rapunzel’s parents traded their firstborn for a handful of lettuce leaves from the witch’s garden twelve years ago, and the witch has come to collect. Now Rapunzel is trapped in a tower with no doors, hair that’s growing freakishly fast, and a strange little green creature watching her every move. Meanwhile, Prince Benjamin is having a hard enough time getting through his awkward stage without the interference of his annoying cousin Elkin. He wants to distinguish himself, but how? He’s no hero. At least, not until he hears a girl singing in a tower…

Sleeping BeautyPrincess Rose’s parents didn’t really mean to not invite the oldest, meanest fairy in the realm to their daughter’s christening – they thought she was dead! Offended, the fairy places a curse on Rose: at age sixteen, she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. Although the youngest fairy in the realm is able to change “die” to “sleep for a hundred years,” Rose’s parents are understandably overprotective…at least until that fated encounter with a spindle. One hundred years later, the Prince (he’s still working on a name) is trying to solve the mystery of the nearby forest, and the castle hidden within it. Things are complicated by his mother the Queen, who is part ogre and still gets a taste for human flesh every so often…

I don’t think plot recaps are terribly necessary in this case; we all know the stories. Mass doesn’t change the bare bones structure much, just adds in some extra characters, mostly as well-meaning antagonists for the princes (non-fairy tale buffs may not know that Disney eliminated the “ogre mother” plotline from older versions of “Sleeping Beauty”). The books jump back and forth between the heroine’s first person account and the hero’s, each chapter only a few pages long.

And, well…they’re all right. The prose is mediocre and any changes to the plot are essentially forgettable. There’s also a weird combination of modern and faux “ye olde”-style language; Rapunzel includes both the line “Don’t bust a gut” and the line “You can insult my horse later, but bide me now.” “Bust” and “bide” do not belong in the same book (unless they are only parts of words and you really mean to say “the bidet is busted”). This extends to the characters’ actions a bit: Rose holds a rather improbable sleepover on one birthday, and is an accomplished tap dancer, even though tap didn’t develop as such until the nineteenth century and then in America (not to mention the fact that you can’t really tap on a stone floor). All this smacks of Mass trying to combine the charm of antiquity with the selling power of modernity (plus a little irony, at least insofar as the tapping is concerned), but the two don’t mesh well, and she probably would have done better to pick one and stick with it.

Rapunzel is kind of plucky and likeable, and Benjamin is kind of awkward and likeable. There were a few weird things to note, however. Rapunzel’s stay in the tower has been dissected by the Freudians at great length and I won’t attempt to do it here, but I will say that Mass decided for some reason to introduce Rapunzel to puberty in the tower: she gets her first pimple and her first noticeable B.O. there, which is sort of a bizarre thing to put in the book. More important – and frustrating – was the fact that Rapunzel is staunchly against fatalism and believes in her own agency…until the witch throws her out of the tower, at which point she plops herself down on the ground and mopes until Benjamin stumbles along, more by luck than anything else, and rescues her. The witch has very little motivation; she goes through a ridiculous circuitous twelve-year-and-nine-months plot to get, essentially, a shoeshine girl. Very odd. Most importantly, however, the complicated relationships in Benjamin’s life, particularly with his mother and his cousin Elkin, don’t get nearly the page space they deserve, while too much is devoted to Rapunzel, who is, after all, trapped in a tower and has nothing to do. More on that later.

Rose and her Prince are far less charming. They’re not unlikeable, they’re just…boring. Rose, of course, has little to do by way of plot; she’s essentially killing time until she meets with the fateful spindle. She mostly attempts to find something she’s good at on her own merits, as opposed to because of the fairies’ gifts (and, incidentally, fails). The Prince, meanwhile, reads like a pale copy of Benjamin, with less of the awkwardness and less of the charm. Even Benjamin’s relationships are duplicated, but whereas Benjamin’s friendship with his page Andrew is clearly shown by their interaction throughout the whole book, Rose’s Prince gets a page named Jonathan, who we are told becomes the Prince’s fast friend but who never gets more than a few lines. Rose’s Prince also gets an antagonistic nobleman like Benjamin’s cousin Elkin, but unlike Elkin, Percival is totally forgettable and entirely one-dimensional. And while Rapunzel and Benjamin, being twelve and thirteen respectively, merely form a respectful friendship with the hint of something more, Rose and her Prince fall in love at first sight, a trope that takes more skill to deploy successfully than Mass has shown here.

Then there’s the matter of the Prince’s name. What with the ogre mother and everything, his parents didn’t know how long he’d last, so they didn’t bother to name him for quite some time. When he finally grew old enough to ask, his father told him this (frankly depressing) story, and suggested that he chose his own name. The Prince ponders it for several years, and finally comes up with one on the last page of the book. I’m cutting for spoilers, but it’s not really a plot detail (you know how the book ends! it’s Sleeping Beauty!):show

More than anything else, though, I’m puzzled by the whole reasoning behind the series itself. Perhaps it’s not the place of a reviewer to question whether a book should have been written to begin with (unless it is truly abysmal), but I must confess I don’t really understand the reasoning behind Twice Upon a Time. I’m all for revisionist and/or modernized fairy tales, and I get that Prince Charming gets short shrift in the “originals” (as much as that word can apply to anything from an oral tradition), what with the not having a name or personality, but I have never felt badly enough for him that I wanted to give him fifty percent of the story.

That is, fairy tales being what they are, I’m not quite sold on the idea of a revisionist fairy tale that doesn’t devote itself to giving the heroine more. These stories give her less, not least because Mass has for some reason chosen the most passive princesses in the whole fairy tale canon. One is stuck in a tower the whole story; the other is asleep. At least Snow White got to clean the dwarves’ house before naptime.

But more importantly, they give her less because it is no longer her story. Despite Cinderella Syndrome, despite “someday my prince will come,” despite unrealistic expectations and reinforcement of gender stereotypes and very poor advice about appropriate footwear, the “princess” batch of fairy tales was always about said princess. “Rapunzel” was about Rapunzel, “Sleeping Beauty” was about Sleeping Beauty. In Twice Upon a Time, Rapunzel is about Rapunzel…and Benjamin. Sleeping Beauty is about Rose…and her Prince.

There are few enough stories out there about young women. I can’t support taking away the ones we already have.

Twice Upon a Time gets two and a half cupcakes – three for the passable Rapunzel and two for the not-very-good-at-all Sleeping Beauty. I haven’t been able to find anything about a third book in the series coming out, but if you do, keep me posted, okay? I have a bit of a train-wrecky interest.

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