Why do we love fairy tales?
Some say they embody universal tropes that pass along the traditions of social messaging. Watch out for those who are different. Fear the unknown. Obey your mother, or the big bad wolf will eat you. Play your cards right, and a fairy (or a prince or an enchanted frog) will rescue you. Follow the rules, and you will live happily ever after.
But that can’t be the answer because fairy tales aren’t actually all that traditional. The ones our grandchildren hear are not the same ones our grandparents told, and they certainly bear little resemblance to their early versions. If the stories don’t change constantly, their meaning becomes irrelevant. All you have to do is go back and look at the original versions to see what I mean. In one of the earliest known sources for many of our familiar fairy tales, Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales/Il Pentamerone (1634), Cinderella is a conniving girl who murders her first stepmother in The Cinderella Cat, but still ends up marrying a prince. In Charles Perrault’s original version from Stories or Fairy Tales from Past Times: Tales of Mother Goose (1697), Little Red Riding Hood strips naked, climbs into bed with the wolf and is…er…eaten. (Contemporary readers would have understood the reference, because the term for a girl losing her virginity was elle avoit vû le loup — she has seen the wolf.) In Basile’s The Little Slave Girl (Snow White), a girl cursed to die at age seven grows to adulthood in an enchanted sleep while encased in a glass coffin, only to be awakened and enslaved by her jealous aunt.
So…given the way fairy tales have evolved—you only have to take a look at the kickass heroines in modern interpretations of Cinderella such as Ella Enchanted or Ever After—it’s clearly not respect for tradition that makes us love fairy tales. No, I think it’s the one thing fairy tales have had in common since their earliest beginnings: the ending. We’re suckers for the happily ever after.
I was an adult before I realized that’s also what’s wrong with fairy tales. I’m not in them. Only two people in each story get that HEA, while everybody else in the entire friggin kingdom…doesn’t. And that’s the real problem with fairy tales. They’re the lottery. We know, objectively, that the odds against being the powerball winner are a bazillion to one. But why shouldn’t that one be me? So we buy millions of lottery tickets anyway. And we know just as objectively that the odds against being the ones silhouetted against the sunset with the words “happily ever after” across the page are just as unlikely.
But the reason fairy tales (and lotteries) are so successful is that there’s a chance we’ll win. If not a boatload of lottery millions, then at least the happily ever after.
And that’s why we love fairy tales.
Please Release Me by Rhoda Baxter
Sally Cummings has had it tougher than most but, if nothing else, it’s taught her to grab opportunity with both hands. And, when she stands looking into the eyes of her new husband Peter on her perfect wedding day, it seems her life is finally on the up.
That is until the car crash that puts her in a coma and throws her entire future into question.
In the following months, a small part of Sally’s consciousness begins to return, allowing her to listen in on the world around her – although she has no way to communicate.
But Sally was never going to let a little thing like a coma get in the way of her happily ever after …
Why do so many girls in fairy tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty end up in an enchanted sleep?
In some very early versions, such as Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales/Il Pentamerone,1634, Snow White is a child who is bewitched into a deathlike state and grows to adulthood encased in a glass coffin. Another tale is Sun, Moon, and Talia, an early version of Sleeping Beauty in which the young woman in an enchanted coma is raped by a passing king (how’s that for charming?), who then forgets all about her and goes back to his wife. Nine months later, when the (still unconscious) girl gives birth to twins, one of the babies is attempting to nurse when he accidentally sucks out the source of the spell and the (probably very surprised) young mother awakens. Instead of calling the police and/or filing for child support, she falls in love and moves in with her royal rapist. As one does. His wife, who understandably finds this all a bit hard to take, decides to cook and eat the babies, and then burn their mother to death. So it turns out that the first wife is the villain, and not her adulterous/rapist husband. Wife #1 is killed and everybody else scores a happily ever after. (Or at least their shrinks do because they’re all going to need a lifetime of psychotherapy.)
So what does all this enchanted sleeping mean? I’ve heard explanations ranging from a paternalistic notion that the young girl remains emotionally unconscious until she marries, to a representation of the severing of the bond between parents and daughter when she becomes sexually active.
These theories don’t really explain the rape, adultery, and cannibalism of the original versions, but it’s interesting to note that those aspects faded out as the brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, or Hans Christian Anderson transformed the stories into versions more acceptable to their times. They disappeared altogether as the tales made it to modern days and Disney princesses. And they’re still changing in all but one respect. There is always a happily ever after. Always. The brave girl and beautiful prince…and these days, maybe another prince or two—might fall in love, it might be the princess who opens a can of whoopass on the witches or dragons, it might even be Wicked Stepmother Maleficient who ends up saving the day. But they will still live happily ever after. That’s what makes it a fairy tale.
As I read Rhoda Baxter’s Please Release Me, I realized that it was a new version of the sleeping beauty story. When we meet Sally, it’s her wedding day. She’s been through various trials and adversity, lost her parents, and met Peter, her prince. Gowned like a princess, she’s ready for that happy ever after. Instead there’s a tragic accident on the way to the HEA, and she ends up in a coma.
As the months slip by, Sally can’t seem to wake up but she slowly becomes aware of what’s happening around her. Meanwhile, Peter, who has been faithfully keeping vigil over Sally, is sliding into an emotional coma himself. He, however, is jolted back to life when he meets Grace, a hospice volunteer struggling to come to terms with her own loss and loneliness. Their two lost souls instinctively form a bond, but with Sally looming between them, they force themselves to back away from each other.
And that’s when Sally realizes that while her body remains in the coma, her spirit (still dressed in her wedding gown) can speak to Grace. An unlikely and reluctant friendship develops between the two women. Sally, the beautiful, damaged, funny, and self-absorbed princess does a fairy godmother makeover on shy Grace. But there’s a problem. That happily ever after is an exclusive little club for two. As Peter learns more about who his sleeping princess really was, as Grace becomes more confident with who she really is, and as Sally gets strong enough to understand what she stands to lose, they realize that if the sleeping beauty wakes up, there won’t be room for three in the happily ever after.
The light tone and bantering dialog, especially between Sally and Grace, had me thinking this was a typical chick lit rom com with an unusual love triangle. But as the story progresses, we see Peter come back to life, we see Grace’s personality unfurl as she emerges from her lonely cuccoon and flexes her wings. And we look back in time to understand the ways Sally has—and has not—triumphed over her own losses and fears.
So what is that enchanted sleep all about? I think it’s about the dream. Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, and Sally are all dreamers. Grace wakes up Peter, Sally wakes up Grace. But Sally has spent her life looking for the dream, and she’s not ready to wake up to a reality that’s changed. As she tells Grace, that’s what she liked about her career in real estate.
“’When I show people around, I like to paint a picture of how the place could be. You know, show them the dream.’ Sally’s eyes sparkled, her expression intense.”
I love the way Rhoda Baxter plays with the various fairy tale tropes, and the way the ending was an unexpected surprise to me. Please Release Me is a fairy tale whose light tone and familiar themes hides a surprising depth, developing characters, and satisfying story. I’d give it an enthusiastic four stars and look for more from this author.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*
Book Title: Please Release Me
Author: Rhoda Baxter
Publisher: Choc Lit
Length: 222 pages
Release Date: 10 September 2015