Review of the Day: A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Every possible fairytale is eventually hunted down and stripped of its elements for middle grade and YA novel reinterpretation. This is not an unusual thing. For centuries humans have been fascinated with such tales, telling them, retelling them, and changing them to suit current needs. Nowandays, when contemporary authors take a tale it becomes the skeleton for a larger story to come. Cinderella becomes Donna Jo Napoli’s Bound. East of the Sun, West of the Moon becomes Sun and Moon Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George or East by Edith Pattou. Nothing against the titles I’ve already mentioned, but my favorite reinterpretations are always the ones that aren’t considered princess tales. The Magic Circle, which took the Hansel and Gretel tale and turned it into a story of mental illness. Or this book, A Curse Dark as Gold which reimagines the Rumpelstiltskin story with cleverness and style. Though I feel some judicious pruning was probably in order, Bunce’s debut binds together a strong story with characters that make you believe. Few books are lucky enough to do so much.
It’s so much simpler to live your life when you know what you want. When Charlotte Miller’s father dies and leaves his mill, Stirwaters, to his daughters Charlotte knows that all she wants is keep the place running. Tragedy after bad luck, however, sees to it that unless Charlotte wants very much to see Stirwaters survive she must seek the help of a stranger. Named Jack Spinner, the man promises to give Charlotte the things she wants the most. But at what price?
There is much to be said for a story that knows what it’s about from page one onward. Sometimes you’ll read a novel and as the plot progresses it feels as if the author is realizing where the story goes alongside their reader. Such books tend to be disappointing. Curse, however, has no such internal weaknesses. No gaps in the narrative or flaws in the work. I can see some young readers becoming confused with Bunce’s mechanical take on the old Rumpelstiltskin tale. They might wonder for some time where the spinning comes in. Of course, all is cleared up when Charlotte mentions to a visitor, “Spinning is at the heart of our operation here.” It is the machines that spin, of a fashion. And like Paul Zelinsky’s version of Rumpelstiltskin, Bunce understands the technical aspects of this fairy tale. When the gold is created it doesn’t lie in bushels but rather as “Gleaming reels of thread . . . stacked chest-high all along one wall, like rows of corncobs.” Sometimes the more technical the text, the better the read.
The romantic element, I must admit, is fairly forgettable. Having read this book about a year ago I’d entirely forgotten that Charlotte even had a beau until I reread it again recently. What sticks far more clearly in the mind is Charlotte’s personality, her love of her sister, her uncle’s attempts to become World’s Greatest Cad, and Jack Spinner. I even remembered the reason why Spinner does the things he does, but I could not remember Charlotte’s beau Randall to save my soul. He’s a steady fellow, but not at the heart of the piece. As such, I wouldn’t sell this book to kids with the lure of romance. Rather, I’d fashion it as a gripping mystery and a book where magic is at its most duplicitous. This is a book too slippery to slot in the standard lovey-dovey romance aisle. Give it a little more respect.
The KLIATT review of this book said that it takes place in “the nonspecific past of the Industrial Revolution.” That’s fair. Bunce basically says as much at the beginning of her Author’s Note. The School Library Journal review said, “A rich opening to Jane Austen’s world for teens.” That’s bizarre. Surely if you had to compare this book to something then it would be far more of a George Eliot piece, yes? Bunce’s talent at putting a smart sentence together is commendable as well. One such example might be when Charlotte is compelled to tell the truth against her instincts. “I sat in stony silence – a crack in my foundations growing wider and wider by the moment.” I love that kind of stuff.
The slow and steady tone of the piece is not in and of itself a problem. Not every novel has to interrupt itself with car chases and fight scenes, after all. Magic isn’t even hinted at, in fact, until page 100 or so. More difficult is the sheer length of the novel. At 400+ pages there are times when the reader wonders if every scene here is absolutely necessary. Working at more of a clip the length of the book would be less noticeable. As it stands, the weight sometimes drags the reader down.
Kirkus suggested in their review that Charlotte was possessed of an “infuriating secretiveness”, which normally drives me bonkers in books. There is no type of story that disturbs me more than one where the protagonist constantly goes against the will of the reader. But Bunce’s tale didn’t have that affect on me. Maybe it was because she put us so effectively into the head of her heroine. Maybe it had to do with the fact that we understood her motivations. And maybe it also had something to do with the fact that when Charlotte is surprised by something, we the readers are surprised as well. Bunce does us the honor of not pulling her punches and we respect her in turn.
All first-time novelists are usually marketed as that; first time novelists. This is both a blessing and a curse. If they do supremely well then people will marvel over their so-called “luck”. Inevitably, they will then write their second novel and no matter how good it is, someone somewhere will be disappointed in it. However if the first novel is well done but has a few areas that deserved tightening up, critics will smile patronizingly and murmur, “That’s all right. She’s clearly a debut novelist. Give her a few books and I’m sure she’ll straighten right up.” I don’t particularly want to say that about this book, but I do honestly believe that this is a strong start straight out of the gate with a few areas that could have been helped. Do not let this put you off, however. Bunce has clearly defined herself as “one to watch” and I’ll be first in line to see whatever it may be that she has hidden up her sleeve next. A good start to an authorial career.
Notes on the Cover: Brilliant. I adore that Charlotte is an actual teenager, the correct age of the character in the book. I swear that on half these covers they hire 25-year-olds to pose. This child still has some babyfat on her cheeks. My mother and aunt inform me that if you squint just right and maybe tilt your head a little to the left, she kinda resembles me at that age. I’d add in a dusting of dandruff, a unibrow, and significantly more frizz to the hair before I came around to this point of view. Apparently Elizabeth Bunce has been asked why this girl’s fingernails aren’t dirty enough. I’m a picky cover gal, but even I can see that’s taking it a bit too far.
Other Blog Reviews:
- bookshelves of doom
- Sarah Miller: Reading, Writing, Musing
- Writing It Out
- Look Books
- Reading Rants!
- Kids Lit
- Miss Erin
- Abby (the) Librarian
- Book Nut
- The Book Smugglers
- YA New York
- The Puck in the Midden
- My Life in Books
- Teen Book Review
- The Compulsive Reader
- This book has been nominated for the William C. Morris YA Award for a debut novelist.
- This is great! Scholastic has posted a booktalk for this title on their website. That’s an incredibly smart idea. Librarians who are reluctant to write booktalks (cough cough) are always on the lookout for a good one. This one’s pretty well done.
- Here is a nice interview with Ms. Bunce as conducted by Miss Erin and another conducted by the book’s editor Cheryl Klein.
- Here’s a fun book trailer someone made for the title. Not all the visuals are strictly accurate, but I figure they’re close enough for government work (so to speak).
Apparently apart from being talented Ms. Bunce is also cute as a button. Check out this behind the scenes look at her being interviewed at her local news station.
Filed under: Reviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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