East by Edith Pattou: B

eastFrom the back cover:
Rose is the youngest of seven children, meant to replace her dead sister. Maybe because of that, she’s never really fit in. She’s always felt different, out of place, a restless wanderer in a family of homebodies. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with it—in exchange for health and prosperity for her ailing family—she readily agrees.

Rose travels on the bear’s broad back to a distant and empty castle, where she is nightly joined by a mysterious stranger. In discovering his identity, she loses her heart—and finds her purpose—and realizes her journey has only just begun.

As familiar and moving as Beauty and the Beast, yet as fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a bold retelling of the classic tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a sweeping story of grand proportions.

Based on the fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” (a translation of which can be found here), East is the story of a girl named Rose who agrees to go away with a white bear in exchange for the healing of her sick sister and an improvement to her impoverished family’s circumstances. She is taken to a castle in a mountain where she is well-provided-for, though she’s troubled by a nightly mystery: each evening, after the lamps have been extinguished, a stranger comes and lays down next to her. She has never seen his face, for he’s always gone by morning. When curiosity overcomes her and she uses an enchanted candle to catch a glimpse of the man, she finds she has done him a grievous wrong. He is the white bear and must now travel east of the sun, west of the moon to become the consort of the troll queen. Rose is determined to rescue him.

Pattou adheres pretty closely to the original story—sometimes too closely, as I occasionally found myself waiting impatiently through familiar bits for parts with more action—and nicely captures the magical quality that it possesses. She embellishes many details, like Rose’s large family and the specifics of her journey north, which is far less fantastic here than in the fairy tale. She alternates narrators between Rose, Rose’s father, Rose’s brother, the white bear, and the troll queen, and gradually the full picture of events is revealed. I particularly like Pattou’s interpretation of troll culture; instead of ugly beasts, Pattou depicts them as beautiful and pale, though rough-skinned, and capable of both cruelty and love.

Rose is no passive damsel, which is one of the reasons the original tale is so noteworthy, and makes for a good protagonist, but certain aspects of the story do seem to go on too long. There’s a lot of emphasis on the sewing projects she undertakes, for example, and the description of her journey to rescue the man is extremely dull. I have little patience for long journeys, I admit, but this one had my eyes glazing over; not even the nifty Norwegian setting could save it. Some aspects of the ending are a little irksome, too, but ultimately it wraps up in a satisfying fashion.

I’m left wondering whether I would’ve liked East more if I hadn’t been familiar with the original story. Ultimately, my final recommendation would be to read this first, and then investigate the tale that was its inspiration.

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