Comment: Usually, I think Yolen makes a much better editor than author. Her sense of prose is quite good, but often her books fail to enthrall.
In Briar Rose, however, she has written a masterpiece. The prose is gorgeous, the story compelling. I have higher standards for tragedy than for happy endings - tragedies need to be on the level of the Greek classics or Lear, and this book has the depth and sensitivity required.
This is not a light and fluffy fairy tale. It is a rich classic.
Summary: Very Moving
Comment: Growing up, Rebecca listened to her beloved grandmother ("Gemma") recount the story of Briar Rose countless times. As Gemma lies dying, she tells Rebecca that she (Gemma) was Briar Rose and asks Becca to promise that she will look into Gemma's past. Becca agrees and embarks upon a journey to Poland that will open up past wounds but will also lead to a new beginning.
"Briar Rose" by Jane Yolen is a powerful novel about the Holocaust. Set in the present day with flashbacks to the Holocaust, it is an unforgettable story. Yolen skillfully weaves Gemma's recounting of the Briar Rose story with what really happened and it is heartbreaking and moving. The novel is filled with great characters - Becca, who agrees to find out Gemma's story and pledges to do so no matter what; Stan, her editor who encourages her to do so; Magda, the irrepressible Polish girl who helps Becca; Josef Potoki, who fills in many of the blanks in Gemma's life (his story is one of the most moving parts of the book); and of course Gemma herself as her story unfolds. Also playing a powerful part in the novel is the visit to Chelmno - not only the place itself but the reaction of the people living near there to the visitors. Gemma and Josef's stories are moving in many ways - a reminder of how much people lost during the Holocaust. The discoveries that Becca makes about Gemma and also the ones that she is unable to make are heartbreaking, yet heartwarming.
"Briar Rose" is a powerful work of fiction. Highly recommended.
Summary: The truth entangled in a fairy tale
Comment: Gemma's last wish is that grand-daughter Becca find the castle; her dying words are that she is Briar Rose. However, the truth is entangled in the single fairy tale that Gemma tells her three grand-daughters throughout their lives. The tale she tells is not standard fare. This tale is elusive. What does it mean that Gemma is Briar Rose? How could a castle be part of Gemma's past?
The French gave us the word plot through "plait," which refers to the unraveling the reader must do as she reads. Imagine a plait of cloth lying horizontally with the loose part on the left (reading occurs left to right) as a closed book. Open the book, read and unravel, read and unravel. This is the task Gemma has given Becca: Unravel the past. The family knows nothing of Gemma's past. Her only clue is the fairy tale: Briar Rose, a new telling of Sleeping Beauty.
The audience knows the power of fairy tales to hide universal truths, that sometimes an external force, in the form of a handsome prince, defeats evil characters and their spells, and sometimes the inner power of the character is the impetus. Jane Yolen's brilliant retelling of Sleeping Beauty through Gemma's tale, is one novel in the Fairy Tales series begun by Terry Windling, in which writers retell a fairy tale in a modern setting. In this tale is hidden the evil of the Holocaust in one hideous castle run by Nazis, and one princess, Briar Rose, awakened by the power of a kiss. No more than that will I tell.
Yolen employs a favorite literary device in Gemma's telling of the tale. In the beginning chapters the reader is supposedly given the finished plait of the story. As Becca begins her quest in discovering the truth, Yolen begins unraveling the story, revealing one hidden fact, and another, and another, until finally toward the end the story is fully revealed and the reader is left gasping at its truth.
Because Becca is a reporter, she knows how to uncover the truth. With the help of her handsome boss, Becca begins her task. A major truth she learns about him before she leaves for Poland is that he is adopted but had his own quest of learning who his birth mother is. Is it necessary to know this truth? Is it better to leave some truths unknown? This is the crux of Yolen's book: Are there some truths better left unknown? Think of that plait. We read a book because we want to unravel the plot and get at the truth of the story. The handsome boss had to know his truth, Becca had to know her Gemma's story, and in the end learns her own identity.
This is one of the most satisfactory Holocaust novels/stories I have ever read, not because it has a happy ending (it does and it doesn't), but because the way Yolen unravels the truth through first one thread then another. If this seems enigmatic, that is what Yolen wants--sometimes finding the truth is tricky and difficult. For many reasons this is an excellent book for girls 9-12, depending on their maturity. This is not a sanitized Walt Disney Sleeping Beauty, but an old-fashioned one in which evil is what it is, but that truth can be liberating.
Summary: Stunning novel, but with one glaring flaw
Comment: I tend to disagree with the reviewers who say this book is unsuitable for readers under 14. I was 9 or 10 when I first read it 15 years ago and though I may not have grasped everything in it with quite the same degree of understanding that I bring to it nowadays, it certainly wasn't unsuitable. Children are far more capable of handling dark subject matter than most adults will admit. As for the 'homosexual themes' I've seen some reviewers mention... The Nazis persecuted homosexuals nearly as zealously as they persecuted the Jews. This is historical fact, and one that tends to be overlooked. Kudos to Jane Yolen for addressing it. I wouldn't necessarily hand this book to a child under 10, but it's definitely appropriate for 6th graders and up.
As for the book itself, Yolen does a lovely job of interweaving past and present, fairy tale and reality. "Gemma's" version of Briar Rose has long been one of my favorite modern retellings. There are some issues with the book--the shallowness of the minor characters, the inordinate convenience of Josef Potocki's appearance in the story--but these are easily brushed aside due to the cruel beauty of the fairy tale, which is indisputably the highlight of the novel. The only major problem is this:
Granted, the characters believed Gemma came to the US before the war. But. Are we truly to believe that a Jewish family descended from an Eastern European immigrant never made the connection between the details in Gemma's unique telling of Briar Rose and the Nazis? Big black boots, shiny silver eagles, deadly "mist", and no one but the heroine lives happily ever after, yet none of them picked up on the Nazi references? I can't say it bothered me when I first read this book--I was a child, after all--but in subsequent readings it has jolted me out of the story. It was necessary for the plot to develop in the manner Yolen desired, but I can't help feeling that there are other ways she might have handled it so that this unrealistic device didn't intrude on the story.
Summary: made me want to cry
Comment: ..in fact i did cry there a bit. I don't know which part is more sad, Gemma's story, or Josef's. And i liked how Yolen twined a potential sleeping beauty remake, and the Holocaust, and made it so unforgettable.
I honestly can't think of one bad thing about this book, and I'm a nitpicker. i give Brair Rose five stars because Yolen made me sink so deeply into the story, that i ....ing cried.
I hope you can love it as much as i do