Sometimes you come across a book that just sounds deliciously readable. Even if you try not to, you’ve already fallen in love with it – “OhMyOhWOW. This book is going to be freakin’ AWESOME!! But but but – don’t think about it too much, Sharry, or else you might plummet into the abyss of disappointment if it doesn’t work out between you…despite how over-the-rainbow you think you will feel by the end of it.”
I annoy myself for being such an increasingly narrow reader. But, the truth is, I have less and less time to spend reading and less and less patience to lug my eyes through page after page of just-not-liking-it. And it is kind of worst when it looks like you might be in the minority (on the other hand, if you’re in the minority of people who love the book, it’s like you’re part of the awesome squad with secret handshake and everything). Because of this self pigeon-hole effect, I’ve got a list of criteria that I subconsciously refer to in my quest for story-land paradise. And if I get my hands on one that seems to fit like Cinderella’s shoe, expectations jump from sub-zero to boiling point with excitement! Now that I think of it, though, I guess I’m basically searching for my own ego but in book form. That’s sorta kinda narcissistic, isn’t it?
East by Edith Pattou sounded like my soulmate in book form – myth, folklore, fantasy, a sprinkling of magical realism and romance with a strong heroine – I thought this book might be one of those that could fatten you up during times of drought. But – I Just. Couldn’t. Get. Into. It. I tried really hard, but I know I don’t like something when all I hear in my head are loudmouthed snarky comments about every scene. In an effort to exorcise this negativity, I thought I would write out every comment so that I could move on, let go, keep reading. No, it didn’t work, but I have two pages of things to complain and whine about with page references and everything.
This story is based on the Norwegian fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (which is, in turn similar to the Greek Myth about Eros and Psyche). It’s one of those tales with big gaping holes in logic and slightly frustrating characters…. all just begging for a writer to fill up and embellish and make better, yet hasn’t been re-told to an early grave. I read the first few chapters of East with the thrill of ripping open a Christmas present. My mind was intrigued by how the Mother character believed that the direction a child faces when he/she is born determines his/her character and went into a seven year birthing spree to fill up all the directions of the compass. Except for North, of course, because northern people are wild and restless and anyway, someone told her that her North child would die a horrible frozen death so avoid North at all cost! But Rose, our heroine of the story, refuses to obey Mother from the day she was born, and comes out facing north and turns out to be the wildest and most reckless of the litter. According to my personal formula for insta-character-love, I should like Rose, just for being such an independent mind, but I didn’t. I didn’t feel much for her at all, and same goes for most of the other characters of the story – including the oft described lonely anguished sorrowful white bear prince.
Part of the reason I didn’t connect with the characters was that I felt a lot of important things about them were told to me rather than shown to me. I like to discover a secret something about a character in a still moment of self-reflection, perhaps. I like to give characters a chance to convince me they’re lovable despite their flaws. There was just some underlying voice of judgment beneath all the other voices of the characters that got in the way. This happened the most with the Mother character. So often was it hinted and plainly stated that the Mother was foolish and her ‘nosiness’ and silly superstitions the cause of so much pain but alas, we must bear with her because she is our mother. I wanted desperately for another character to try to understand where the mother’s coming from, but they all kind of dismissed her and at most, tsked at her behaviour. What’s wrong with fearing for your daughter’s safety? She doesn’t even know who she’s sleeping with??! I’d worry about the state of my daughter’s mind if she wasn’t the least bit curious. Out of everyone in the story, only her Mother, ironically, gave her some sort of help. Even her own brother was all, “Well, that sounds like a fairy tale! How awesome! Keep it up!” (Don’t get me started on how illogical it is that a young girl should feel perfectly alright with the idea of a mysterious thing slipping under the covers with her at night. I would be freaked out of my mind – I wouldn’t need my mother to give me a candle to spark my curiosity).
As you can tell from my above comments, there were lots of places where story-logic didn’t make sense or wasn’t adequately explained (I have a whole list…these things bother me). For example, why would the Troll King decide to turn the prince into a white bear out of all the other possible creatures that exist? (Like in the Frog Prince – I can totally see the logic in transforming someone into a frog, they’re not usually very endearing to human folk. Or the beast in Beauty and the Beast, something ugly and unnatural and fearsome). And it didn’t make sense that Rose didn’t believe in magic or superstitions for the longest time whilst living with a bear (she was conversing with a TALKING BEAR). And, the logic of her character didn’t really match up with her actions. Apparently she was wild and beautiful and brave, however, she didn’t show much of this for a great chunk of the story. She immediately fell into the role of silent suffering martyr. She didn’t even feel curious or angry about her mysterious bed visitor at first. And then, when curiosity got to her, she started to imagine real gruesome stuff snoring n’ shivering next to her. (So, as long as he’s good-looking, he can sleep in my bed and he can have my pity, but if he’s got scales, compassion is out the window!) And it irked me to no end that Rose thought of her act of candle-lighting to be an act of deception. That just grossly disagrees with me. What is wrong with curiosity? The bear never said anything about not being allowed to light a candle at night. She kept slapping herself about her “one reckless choice”, when I felt she should have been angry and righteous. I don’t like how it was hinted that female curiosity is punishable by misery and is shameful. It sounds too Pandora’s box.
By this time, you’d think Rose would have started to feel more than just compassion for the Prince, but maybe the beginnings of genuine love and who else can she be honest with but with me, the reader? But no mention of love. And even then, there wasn’t much going on between the two except occasionally, the white bear watches her when she’s making pretty dresses and learning how to play music. Oh, and he sleeps with her and communicates with great difficulty punctuated by “sighing noises”. This would be enough to win my pity but not enough to win my heart. Which then leads to her illogical decision to go to the ends of the earth to find the Prince – to “right a terrible wrong”. What? She barely knows him! She’s willing to risk her life for that? She must know that she will be given a happy ending, then. Or maybe he was so handsome pity turned to instant love. Those are the only reasons I can think of.
Actually, there was one character that I liked marginally better than the rest – the Troll Queen. She wasn’t given very many pages to express herself but she was, by far, the most interesting. For instance, in the Troll lands of Huldre, humans are slaves and are fed these drinks called Slank to subdue their spirit so they’re nice and docile, and the troll folk look down their noses at them. But, the Queen actually falls in love with a softskin Prince and wants to make him her husband and the King. Now, that’s interesting. And at one point in the story, she actually considers freeing the slaves. That underlying voice of judgment in the story tried to write her off as a shallow, fickle creature, who probably only fell in love with the idea of soft skin and not so much the prince himself, but I felt like there was another dimension in the story that could have been told. Besides if she really just wanted the soft skin, did she really have to make him her husband? She could have just had him as a consort of something. And throughout Rose’s quest, I got this feeling of “a race to beat the wedding”, as if after the wedding, all would be lost forever? But that was not really explained, either.
On the plus side, the story became more exciting once Rose’s quest began. She was actually showing her adventurous, brave side and meeting a great plethora of interesting characters. I like Sofi and Thor and Malmo. I found them much more interesting than the main cast. And I really appreciate all the folklore and mythology that was intermixed into the story – that was well worth reading the story for. The descriptions of the landscape and the Troll’s world were riveting, and I got the sense of the long journey and the hardships Rose had to go through to find the Prince. The slave dynamics between the trolls and humans was also very interesting, I would have liked to explore that further.
“East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is exceedingly outdated, as most fairytales can be and therefore poses a great challenge when it comes to re-tellings. But this was why I was even more interested in reading a re-telling of it! I wanted to know how the author was going to explain away all the issues that were going on in the original tale while keeping most of the elements intact to create an entertaining story. In many ways, Edith Pattou did an excellent job – introducing character versions of the famous East, West, South and North winds. But, in many ways, I was disappointed. A novel-sized fairytale re-telling should try to answer more of these questions, in my opinion. I would understand it if was a short story, but a novel – there is plenty of time to fill in these gaps and explore more possibilities.
I’ve always had a special fascination for Scandinavian/Russian folklore because of the landscapes painted by the stories and the frozen-breath-fur-wrapped darkly lit stories. There seems to be so much promise behind these stories (although the heroes and heroines frustrate me sometimes – but all the more reason to re-write these gems!) There aren’t enough of them out there to satisfy me. There’s tons of the classic Grims fairy-tales retold. But not enough of “The Snow Queen” and “Vasilisa’s Doll” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” for example. So, despite how East just didn’t appeal very much to me, I’ve got to send out tons of appreciative love and I’ll probably try out any other fairytales Edith Pattou re-tells if she’s got any planned!
Reviews from other book bloggers:
*Anastasia from Bird Brain(ed) Book Blog: “I really liked the story, anyway. I liked that it was just a little different from traditional fairy tales, but that it kept enough of their flavor that I could recognize certain things. It was like meeting an old friend who had just gotten a new haircut, or something. I felt very satisfied when I finished reading East, and that’s a nice feeling to have, sometimes.”
*Emily from Emily’s Reading Room: “I liked this book, but I didn’t like the shifting of perspectives. I felt like it made the story much more confusing than it needed to be. That aside, the story was beautifully written, and I really enjoyed it. I think it might be a little too long for younger readers and they might lose interest.”
*Jenny from Jenny’s Books: “I say definitely yes to this. If I had read it when I was small, it would have become one of my favorite books and I would have read it over and over again. As it is, I liked it but I probably wouldn’t buy it.”
*Kailana from The Written World: “My favourite thing about this book was how well Pattou managed to retell a tale that I had heard many times before and keep it fresh and original. She keeps the main storyline mostly the same, but she alters the details and explains things that had never been explained before. Her additions really added to the story. When you read retellings it can be unsatisfying because they are really the same story, but Pattou was successful in keeping the readers’ attention.”
*Thea from The Book Smugglers: “And yet…for all this praise, I did feel like something was missing from the book. I’ll put it this way – East put me in the mind of Robin McKinley’s Beauty. Both are solid, lovely retellings, but both are missing that extra OOMF. That WOW factor that makes a truly wondrous retelling work (see Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing or Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl for examples of what I’m talking about). Though it wasn’t quite at that level, East is beyond any doubt the best retelling I’ve read of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and most CERTAINLY worth reading. Definitely recommended, especially for those looking for an adventurous, romantic fantasy.”
*Nymeth from Things Mean Alot: “Hmmm…I think I will remember the Trolls, strange though this might sound. I love how Pattou developed them and gave them a background, a language, and way of life of their own. I found them both frightening and fascinating. The Troll Queen was cruel, but she too had believable motivations. And the existence of Tuki (a young Troll Rose befriends) gave them some depth, made them more interesting than they’d be if they were simply portrayed as mindlessly cruel human-enslaving monsters. The story shows us their dark side, of course, but we also get the feeling that there’s more to their society than that. And if you think about it, the cruelty with which they treat humans isn’t too different from the cruelty with which humans sometimes treat what they see as “lesser beasts”.”
Rating: 4 words rumbling out from deep in the white bear’s chest
To answer the question I asked in the title, I think it might have something to do with what the author herself wrote about the story in the interview found at the back of the book: “In the prologue, Rose says about herself that over the course of her journey she learned “a little bit about patience,” and that is certainly one of the main changes she undergoes. She also gains insight into her impulses, learning both how to curb them as well as how to use them to find her way toward her goal. She grows up and settles down, having learned how to love.”