Sunday, August 12, 2012

For Star-Crossed Lovers Everywhere: The Thorn and the Blossom, by Theodora Goss

The Thorn and The Blossom by Theodora Goss (2012 by Quirk Books, with illustrations by Scott McKowen) is a delightful love story, a tale of missed chances and mutual misunderstandings, woven around a thousand-year-old curse by a jealous witch.  Brendan and Evelyn meet cute in a bookshop in Cornwall, but their first kiss ends with Evelyn fleeing from a vision she has of Brendan transforming into the Green Man.      A decade passes before they meet again, fate (?) throwing them together in the English Department of a small college in Virginia.  Their love reignites ("For the first time that she remembered, the world felt right, as it should be.") but then Evelyn learns of Brendan's secret...

Goss--a professor of literature at Boston University--re-imagines in an original way the tale of Sir Gawaine and the  Green Knight, evoking more generally Arthurian legend as glossed by Tennyson and John William Waterhouse (she refers explicitly to Waterhouse's famous 1888 painting The Lady of Shalott).  Goss conjures not only a modern-day love story but the spirit of 19th-century fascination with an idealized medieval world, the world envisioned by Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris.  Deeper still, Goss updates the dangers of passions that seem to cross decades and centuries, the chill hazards of romance on the thresholds of death--summoning here a sensibility found in the work of Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Mew.  Best of all, Goss leaves some things unexplained, and ends on a note of musing rather than finality.

Goss is already one of the fantasy genre's leading voices, both as a storyteller (she won the World Fantasy Award in 2008; her collection In the Forest of Forgetting from Prime Books in 2006 is a casket of gems) and a scholar (her 2008 study for Aqueduct Press, Voices from Fairyland, should be a standard on syllabi for Victorian poetry).  What she has done now is refresh the genre, expanding its interests into territory explored by A.S. Byatt in Possession and--still further afield--by Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, Anne Tyler.  Alice Hoffman has shown that there is a large audience for such explorations, as have movies featuring love stories with a paranormal or Borgesian twist such as 1998's Sliding Doors with Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah and the 2006 Sandra Bullock/Keanu Reeves vehicle The Lake House.  I hope Goss will continue mapping out her own lanes and fields in this province--and why not a film version in the bargain?.

No review of The Thorn and the Blossom can be complete without mention of its charmingly ingenious construction: the story is told separately from the point of view of each main character; the book is bound accordion-style, so that the reader can start with either "Brendan's Story" or "Evelyn's Story," then flip the volume upside down and backwards to conclude with whichever version of the tale is as yet unread.  Quirk Books has done a masterful job of physical production, from the slipcover to the McKowen illustrations, from the golden ivy and floral scrolling that runs the borders of each page to the embellished lettering on the covers--all worthy of Morris's Kelmscott Press.  The book even smells delicious, which unites the reader near perfectly with the heroine Evelyn:  "Yes, there it was. The intoxicating smell of old books.  It was one of the reasons she'd wanted to study literature rather than attend law school."

FTC-required book reviewer note:  I purchased my copy of The Thorn and the Blossom (for that matter, I bought my own copies of In the Forest of Forgetting and Voices from Fairyland as well); the review above is unsolicited.  

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