I’ll confess that the first thing that attracted me in this book was the cover art. It is aesthetically pleasing (inspired by the famous Kiss by Gustav Klimt, and designed by Mayalen Goust) and also mysterious (I hadn’t noticed the black form around the sleeping girl’s head until much later). I knew Flore Vesco was a best-selling French author for young readers and I just picked the book at the library without any further information. It was indeed a lucky discovery!
The story is told in a fictional 19th British countryside, where wealthy aristocracy wants to marry off their daughters to the richest party around. The heir to Blenkinsop Castle, Lord Handerson, is the focus of attention, but his condition is that each prospective fiancée spends a night, unchaperoned, at the castle, alone in a bedroom with a huge pile of mattress. The ambitious Mrs. Watkins is ready to send her daughters Margaret, Martha and May there, together with their maid Sadima, but all 3 get turned back in the morning with no explanation.
This is the most unexpected rewriting of a classic tale (Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea”) that I’ve read. From the prologue we are warned that the original tale is sort of ridiculous: to check the nobility of a future wife based on her extreme sensitivity, or rather frailty, had always seemed to me like a weird choice even for a patriarchal logic. You’d think that a powerful lord would need a solid young woman with a stiff upper lip to bear his children, not a girl who’d whine about a pea. Anyway, here we’re in fantasy territory and not everything is supposed to be historically accurate. But it is also transgressive and positive!
I will spoil a little bit: Sadima the maid is the true heroine of this tale and she is strong, resourceful and daring. She’s not shy about her body, her skills, her intelligence and her dreams! She’s also not shy about exploring feelings and sex (after all, a bedroom with lots of mattress is not really about a lost pea, right?), although nothing is explicit in the book (the publisher suggest readers from age 14). The book takes many twists and turns, getting into romance territory to veer off towards supernatural and even horror. It might be a bit confusing to younger readers (especially the very metaphorical allusions to sex) but to me it was fun and liberating.
Flore Vesco is a French lit teacher and it shows, in the way she plays with words and levels of language (from casual to poetic, from formal to puns). My 13yo was not really attracted by the girly premises of the book, but I’m sure he’d have enjoyed it. This book was part of a selection by our librarians of books that have all participated to a particular YA / kids literary prize, the Prix Sorcieres (Witches). Now I’m really curious about other winners of these prizes!