Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rapunzel, MD

Sold for Endless Rue, by Madeleine E Robins
Sold for Endless Rue, by Madeleine E. Robins, is an adaptation loosely based on Rapunzel, though I didn't even realize that until near the very end when the Rapunzel character chopped off her hair.  It is set in Medieval Italy and focuses on a female line of healers and physicians.  The second in that line, Laura, is an orphan adopted by a kind and confident healer.  Laura is very intelligent and goes on to become a physician in the city.  Her adopted daughter Bieta also wants to be a physician but struggles a lot with her studies and falls in love with a fisherman.  This angers her mother, who wants her to study only.  The fisherman is not acceptable.  Thus, Bieta's life becomes more and more limited, and then there is mention of her long hair, and that is when I realized that Bieta was actually Rapunzel and Laura was the villain.

I really love Robins' Sarah Tolerance series, set in an alternate history Regency England with an awesome fallen woman private investigator.  However, I have not enjoyed any of her other books nearly as much.  Sold for Endless Rue was fairly disappointing as well.

What I did like was the detail about medicine in 13th century Europe, and Robins making clear that women, whether as midwives, rural healers, or highly respected physicians, had a very strong and respected role in healing.  I also enjoyed reading more about the rigorous training required to be a physician in the 13th century, though there is of course the irony that the physicians spent a lot of time learning things that, I assume, did not make them much better at all than their rural healer counterparts who did not need to understand algebra and astrology to help their patients.  I do think that Robins is quite skilled at showing how women in history expanded their worlds, proving that our narrow way of assuming that all women ran homes and nothing else is false.  And even if it's mostly true, women did do a lot that we don't give them credit for.

There are absolutely hints of what makes the Sarah Tolerance series brilliant here.  The women in this story are very intelligent and confident and are not afraid to stand up for themselves.  Laura's mentor is kind and driven, Laura is fierce and passionate, and Bieta is slightly insecure and empathetic.  Bieta's fisherman's mom (a fishwife?) was my favorite - she was not at all like the fishwives in A Tale of Two Cities, but was loyal, caring, and exactly the sort of woman you would want to take you under her wing.  The men in this story take a bit of a backseat - they're important, but they know that they are not the stars, and they seem fine with that.

What I did not like was the narrative arc of the story.  There were three narrators in this story, Laura, an unrelated narrator, and then Bieta.  In my opinion, the second narrator, a pregnant merchant's wife, was unnecessary.  She never showed up in the story prior to narrating, and she never came back after she finished narrating.  Much of her narration was taken up with the really strong cravings she had for a certain type of food.  I appreciated learning more about pregnancy in the 13th century, I guess, but that was really all she provided.  And, if you know the Rapunzel story, you can guess that some key events happened in her section of the story, so it was a little frustrating that she never showed up again and wasn't even referred to.  That was a pretty huge gap in the narrative for me, but I am the sort of person who likes tidy endings in her fairy tales - in reading other reviews, this did not seem to bother other people, so maybe it won't bother you, either.

I also didn't quite understand the evolution of Laura's character.  For someone who devoted her life to healing and helping others, she seemed to morph into "the witch" and become the villain very quickly.  I didn't see the bridge that took us from one side to the other.  I mean, I see what Robins wanted us to see as the bridge and the justification, but it's just hard to imagine someone who seemed so well-adjusted and intelligent become so closed-minded.

So ... not my favorite book, but some really strong points!  I would prefer another Sarah Tolerance mystery, though, because that woman is awesome.

PS - Similar to Ghana Must Go!, I have no idea why this book has the title Sold for Endless Rue.  It sounds like it's about a prostitute who has spent her whole life feeling rueful, but this is not the case.  I feel like there are about 1,000 better titles out there.


  1. Yeah, not the greatest title here, but you're totally making me want to read the Sarah Tolerance series. I'm going to make it happen.

  2. I am both intrigued and not interested at all :D

  3. I saw the cover a while ago and loved it, but the title had me thinking it was a historical romance. I'm more inclined to read it now, having read your review, though the change in character and definitely the second narrator would probably bug me, as well.


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