Review of NOBODY’S PRINCESS by ESTHER FRIESNER
The story of Helen of Troy is certainly appetizing bait for a writer. However, Helen rarely appears in retellings as anything more than a passive - if beautiful - catalyst. Friesner sets herself the challenge of portraying Helen not as the typical damsel in distress but a capable, remarkable young woman overwhelmed by impossible circumstances.
People comment on Helen’s appearance from a young age. She enjoys the attention, until her sister’s jealous remarks made Helen think harder about what it means to be beautiful. As her sister Clytemnestra laments, Helen often doesn’t earn this special treatment. Helen also starts to realize that this “gift” of beauty will likely infringe on her previous freedom more and more the older she becomes. People will expect her to behave a certain way and to fulfill feminine ideals. Perhaps it’s because she’s young and perhaps not, but Helen yearns for adventures besides marriage and children.
She starts training in secret with her brothers and goes on to learn whatever she can about weaponry and fighting arts by spying, disguising herself, and seeking out willing mentors.
For me, the greatest strength of this novel is undoubtedly the characters and relationships. Clytemnestra may not be the nicest to Helen, but she probably molds Helen for the better by making her consider why everyone treats her differently. Helen also has a sweet if complicated relationship with her brothers. They’re torn between respecting her capabilities and a sense of duty to steer her back towards traditional feminine roles. Whenever she announces what she wants to do, they’re usually doubtful and mocking, but they do get credit for admitting when they underestimated her. The best part is that all these personalities are so subtly delivered; I never felt the author hitting a point too hard.
I normally don’t pick out specific quotes from books. I may notice the quality of the writing overall, but it’s rare for me to find individual lines that I feel the urge to mention. With NOBODY’S PRINCESS, though, I kept finding quotes that fit that wonderful combination of funny and wise, such as “The gods protect me from men who mean well!” I also liked “it wouldn’t be the first time a man found courage he never knew he had until he met the right woman.” I think “man” and “woman” in that phrase can be changed out for “person,” but I’m a big believer in the catalyst relationship where meeting someone new ends up changing your whole outlook. Last I’ll mention “A rock at the bottom of a well is safe from worries too,” a reminder that sometimes we compromise comfort for a little adventure.
But there’s no compromising with NOBODY’S PRINCESS! This is a fun, fast read with understated depth and warmth.