Friday, July 12, 2013

THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS


Review of THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS by RAE CARSON
(first in the FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

I knew I would love this book, so I’m not really sure how it kept falling down on my to-read list. Regardless, the voice hooked me even faster than I expected (near immediately) and it didn’t take long for me to mentally chastise myself for waiting so long to read this!

Perhaps my reasons for procrastination include the fear that THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I've heard this book raved about by all sorts of people and sometimes that kind of praise only sets you up for a fall from your own impossible expectations. I won't further this trend by heaping such outlandish compliments on the book that my readers suspect generous exaggeration, but I will say that - while I expected certain assets - some of the book's strengths took me by surprise.

I didn’t expected such a complex, formula-defying story, for one thing. I could never predict what would happen next. For starters, the first chapter opens with the marriage of our heroine Elisa to a charming and handsome king. Wait...isn't that the ending of most fairy tales? Of course, the conflict has hardly begun. Their marriage soon proves a rather...unusual arrangement and it doesn't take long for both Elisa and the reader to discover that everyone, including those she loves and trusts, has been keeping her in the dark. Fast on the heels of that realization we learn along with Elisa that her ignorance stretches far beyond herself to a world nothing like what she's been taught.

I admire Elisa in many ways and she exemplifies why this book made such an impression on so many people. She redefines strength as we commonly see it. She's not a warrior, though she has her physically impressive moments. She's not cruel and aches at the harsh decisions she must make for both her own survival and the paradoxical concept of fighting for peace. I also loved her relationship with the bratty prince, a dynamic that brings out the best in both of them.

I’ve heard this book critiqued for tying Elisa's character arch with her weight loss. As I have yet to mention, Elisa is not only notably overweight but possibly probably even obese. (Perspective leaves some wiggle room in interpreting her exact figure.) Knowing from the start that the themes of obesity and overeating in this book have received mixed reviews, I approached them with an analytical mind. Personally, I felt mixed reviews within myself. Sometimes I nodded along, thinking, "Yes, yes, wonderfully approached," and other times I shook my head, thinking, "Well, that's reinforcing a fallacy." I definitely disagree with the complaints regarding Elisa losing weight as she gains self-esteem, because the former isn't what's causing the latter. Elisa goes on a physically and emotionally grueling journey (yes, I'm trying to avoid spoilers), which 1. changes her physically and 2. changes her emotionally. I think there's some confusion regarding cause and effect. Two things did bug me a little, though: how much Elisa eats and how much she thinks about food. Of course, a lot of these judgments come down to our own relationship with food along with what we perceive as normal, which explains why certain things bother some people and not others. I at least consider these two elements I’m going to discuss common misunderstandings. First, it doesn't take nearly as much food intake to sustain a certain weight as to gain weight. Because overweight people are often judged as gluttons, there's the assumption that they're constantly stuffing their faces. Not true. While it is factual that the calories required to sustain your current weight increase as your weight goes up, not by as much as the general opinion seems to believe. Again, it's all about perspective and interpretation, but the way Elisa's eating habits are portrayed led me to feel she would be rapidly gaining weight, not just staying heavy. Second, there's the belief that people who overeat think about food all the time. There are moments in the book when Elisa's life is in danger and her thoughts go to her food cravings. Now a psychologist or someone who has experiences closer to Elisa's (that would be a combination of overeating habits and life-threatening circumstances) might be more qualified on this matter than myself, but I scoffed at the idea that Elisa would be thinking about pastries in her potentially final moments. Setting aside every little thing that rubbed me the wrong way but didn’t annoy other people and vice versa, I intensely admire Carson for braving this territory. Even if we’re critiquing how she handled these themes, their presence in the book encourages important discussions we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Time for a bit of a tangent. It irked me that THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS has a whitewashed cover. (For those unfamiliar with the term, whitewashing - in this context - refers to when a white person is put on the cover of a book that stars, well, not a white person.) I assumed Elisa to be Latina based on the terminology and names, though race is never explicitly stated (probably because this is a fictional world). However, both her weight and very dark skin color are stated in no uncertain terms and yet the girl on the cover is very skinny and very pale. I could certainly go on about this topic, but I'll save that for a longer post another day and leave it at my disappointment to see Elisa misrepresented.

My last complaint has to do with character deaths. Don't worry; I won't spoil anything. Some prominent characters do die in this book, more than one. It is a war, after all. Two deaths in particular frustrated me, because I had been thinking only pages earlier, "I like this character, but they're not quite as fleshed out as I want. I hope they and their relationship with Elisa develops more over the course of the trilogy" and then BAM! - dead. Very unsatisfying.

What makes THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS amazing is the girl of the title - Elisa. She's a pretty remarkable young woman right from the beginning, but once she’s jolted out of her comfort zone she becomes an astonishing force. I can’t wait to see what’s next for her.

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