Gregory Frost, Fitcher’s Brides (Tor Books, 2002)
Fitcher’s Brides, by Gregory Frost, is one of the most recent additions to Terri Windling’s excellent brainchild, The Fairy Tale Series. As such, it shares shelf space with other such remarkable works as Briar Rose by Jane Yolen and Tam Lin by Pamela Dean.
Fitcher’s Brides is, at its core, a retelling of Bluebeard, a cautionary fairy tale that warns against curiosity and temptation, for dark and potentially fatal secrets are hidden behind the locked doors of unknown husbands. While the original fairy tale seems to remove power from women in this regard, the version Frost offers here has a much more satisfying feminist slant.
Within these pages are three sisters, each fated to enter into holy matrimony with Bluebeard, that cad herein named Elias Fitcher, a doomsday minister gathering a flock in 1840s America. The end times are coming, he says, calling their father into his service and thus putting each of the girls within his sinister reach. The family is summarily uprooted from Boston to Jekyll’s Glen, a kind of commune for Fitcher’s faithful located in New York, around the Finger Lakes region. According to Elias Fitcher, Jekyll’s Glen is the staging point for the redemption of the faithful and the damnation of the rest of mankind.
Because the three girls are the focus of the novel, the perspective often switches among them. This alternating perspective is really my only complaint of the novel: at the beginning of the novel, while the perspective is primarily that of the eldest sister, it will often switch with very little fanfare, leaving you to discover you’ve been reading from someone else’s perspective more than a paragraph after the change. This switching induced me to reread several paragraphs to assure myself regarding whose thoughts I’d been reading. Also, the pace of the book quickens as the plot wends inexorably forward, regardless of whose perspective you’re currently reading from. Much time is spent getting to know the eldest sister and progressively less time is spent with each succeeding sister, though that is not necessarily in keeping with their relative importance to the plot.
However, this clumsiness of perspective doesn’t detract from the engrossing mystery that unfolds, replete with suggested ghosts, a wicked stepmother, doomsday prophecy, Christian iconography, and powerful women. While in the original fairy tale the ill-fated wife was saved by her brothers, the sisters in this retelling ultimately realize that only within themselves lies the power to be saved. In fact, it is often the men that are revealed to be unwise and weak in this engrossing version. This novel, at the end, reveals itself to be a stirring tale about the power of the self and the power of redemption, all told in lush and satisfying prose.
I should add that there is an excellent and informative introduction by Terri Windling, which explores the Bluebeard story in a little depth, putting it into a cultural and academic context. I would almost suggest reading the introduction after the story, however, so that you don’t intellectualize Frost’s retelling more than you should.
This review was originally published at Green Man Review on May 8th, 2005.