I love a good fairy tale retelling. I love the way these stories’ familiar elements—an apple for a Snow White story, long hair for Rapunzel—give us just enough information to recognize them, and to expect certain things from the retelling. And I love it when someone takes those expectations and turns in a story that’s totally unexpected. In Kissing the Witch, Emma Donoghue does this brilliantly: each of her fairy tales is linked, one to the next, by a villain who was once a heroine.
For some reason this conceit is really hard to describe, but here goes: At the end of each story, the heroine asks her villain who she was before she became a witch, and the villain replies, “Will I tell you my own story?” And then she begins to tell another familiar fairy tale, about a time when she was the innocent one. My favorite of these backstories is the discovery, at the end of “The Tale of the Rose,” that Beauty’s Beast (a lady beast) was once Snow White. This is so fabulous that it is now my Beauty and the Beast/Snow White headcanon.
I was just going to focus on villains here. I wasn’t going to talk much about the ladies loving ladies/general feminist elements of Kissing the Witch because I just didn’t have room (instead I was just going to make a dirty joke about Snow White and the apple. Seriously, READ IT). But actually, it’s hard to separate out the different pieces that make this book so extremely special. Yes, the structure complicates the idea of the bad guy. Every witch was once innocent; every innocent could become a witch. But—what does it mean to be a witch? What does it mean that these villains and victims are all ladies, even in the original tellings of the tales? And how does their evil get more complicated when suddenly these evil stepmothers and spinster witches are also their innocent young ladies’ lovers? Every villain in this book has a backstory, but these fairy tales also reveal how our understanding of villainy has its very own backstory.
I could never do this book justice in a blog-posty number of words. Just go read it.