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If you've read my reviews before, you'll know that I'll always jump at a fairy tale retelling — and Camille Griep's debut novel Letters to Zell definitely sounded like a unique one. It's an epistolary novel featuring letters written from Snow White (Bianca), Cinderella (CeCi), and Sleeping Beauty (Rory) to their friend Rapunzel (Zell), who has recently shaken up the fairy tale world by choosing to abandon her happily ever after and move to a unicorn farm in Oz.
I'll admit that Letters to Zell was hard for me to get into at first. The attempts to make fairy tale princesses "edgy" often fell flat and were eye-roll-worthy — for example, the rebellious Bianca uses stationery headed with the words "Important Fucking Correspondence from Snow B. White" — but over time I got more used to the voice and was able to (mostly) suppress the eye-rolls.
One thing that truly marks a great novel for me is when I get sucked into it and I stop feeling like I'm reading — more like I'm just experiencing the story. Unfortunately, I never got to that point with this book, for two main reasons.
First, I never understood the world. It's a tough thing, to convey complete worldbuilding to a reader when we're only given access to the world through letters written by (and to) people who have lived in this world for their whole life. It makes the exposition clunky as heck (like if I were to say to you, "you know how we humans use cell phones to communicate with each other? Well, the other day I was making a phone call...") and prevents us from ever truly understanding the world in which these characters live. The information we're given is vague, and there are enough direct references to fairy tales that the non-fairytale references (like "Fred"... we he supposed to be someone we recognize from fairy tale canon?) just ended up needlessly confusing me as I fished through my fairy tale knowledge to identify characters or storylines. I was left with too many questions about how the world functioned, which was distracting from the story — not to mention that there were major plot points that hinged on understanding of the world and its portals and interaction with the human world, many of which lost urgency because I didn't feel like I fully understood the consequences.
My other beef is also with the worldbuilding, although it's a different issue entirely. In general, authors try to avoid dating their works by relying too heavily on pop culture (notable examples being books that thrive on their pop culture relevance, like Rainbow Rowell'sFangirl — just one of those "know the rules before you break them" things, I guess) because if someone reads your book in 10 years, they don't want the language and the references to make readers cringe. This is why most authors will just call a cell phone a cell phone, instead of noting that a character unlocks their iPhone or uses their smartphone to Google something.
Griep does not take such precautions, and actually factors a lot of this pop culture stuff into the story, which... in my opinion simply doesn't work in this case. The princesses actually visit Disneyland and complain about the inaccuracy of the princesses. It was difficult to read those sections through the eye rolls. The attempted comedy of mocking Disney's "Disney-fication" of classic fairy tales absolutely, 100% fell flat for me, and almost made it feel like Griep was expressing superiority over Disney, which is frankly laughable.
Her characters' indoctrination into the human world is idealistic at best, and embarrassingly unrealistic at worst, featuring an oddly "small town" view of the big city, some "uh...magic" explanations of college admissions, and "whoops, I wrote myself into a corner" solutions to some very non-negotiable things, like being arrested.
But despite all my issues with the worldbuilding, there were aspects of this book that kept me reading even as I rolled my eyes — things that might make this book a new favorite, if you aren't bothered by the stuff I detailed above. This book picks up some heavy subjects, and simultaneously gets wonderfully light on others.
At risk of getting spoiler-y, the culmination of Sleeping Beauty's story is deftly handled, and tackles a dark, touchy subject with exactly the right fairy tale twist. Griep's tactfully complex handling of a subject that too many people oversimplify, dramatize, or glorify is absolutely worthy of praise. Rather than stepping back and passing a moral judgment on a complicated thing — something that would've been easy to do in the context of a fairy tale world — Griep instead chooses to show us the unbiased but moving responses of close friends to a painful situation.
And on the other side of that coin, I can't pass up the opportunity to commend Griep on her carefree, lighthearted portrayal of people exploring queer relationships. I believe there is a place in literature for stories about gay people struggling to be accepted in a world full of judgment and hate, but queer fiction too often has a regrettable dearth of the fun, flippant love stories that straight readers get easy access to. Griep does a fantastic job of providing this for her readers, no strings attached.
My recommendation: A light read (with structural problems) and a unique twist on fairy tales! Check it out if you don't have anything more pressing on your to-read list.
What's your favorite fairy tale-inspired novel? Tell me in the comments!