Fairytale Romance

It's grimmer than you'd expect for Ketzia Gold.

I want to tell you something, so listen. There once was a girl who remained a girl even when she became a woman. And not just any girl, oh no! She was the girl from the fairy tales ... all of the fairy tales. Even she didn't believe she was real.

That is my synopsis of Kate Bernheimer's first novel, but it also serves to explain the essential flaw of The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold, which is this: The title character's identity is such a patchwork of fairy-tale heroines that the reader can't imagine Ketzia escaping the mirror on the wall any more than Ketzia herself can imagine it. But with that said, I can move on now to why I found the novel so intelligent.

From childhood bath snapshots to the desk where she works as a transcriptionist, Ketzia is almost always an intensely conscious object of the gaze of others, particularly of men in her adulthood. At the Tucson hotel where she lives the manager can watch her through a window "as part payment"; at the home she shares with her husband, Adam, she imagines the bachelor who sold them the house is watching her undress. When she is not inventing these scenarios, she is choosing them.

The idea that she would choose to structure her lifestyle surrounded by men is easily supported, however, by the meanness she finds in the girls and women of her childhood. Her sisters torment and betray her constantly; her summer at Auntie Perfect's house is characterized by the "sensation of judgment." The formula of many fairy-tale endings, in which a girl is taken away from a youth full of threatening women into the kingdom of a man, is deconstructed in believably human terms through these experiences. Particularly moving are Ketzia's self-conscious, floundering efforts to preserve that ending in "The Bad Wife," the novel's last chapter. The sheer incomprehensibility of her behavior makes it clear to Ketzia, Adam and the reader that the slipper never really fit Ketzia to begin with, and it is heartbreaking to witness her try to hobble along in it anyway.

The sources of Ketzia's confusion are also presented with subtle clarity. Bernheimer's adaptations of German, Russian and Yiddish fairy tales, some of which consume whole chapters of the novel, are interspersed with modern and more overtly sexualized situations, texts and illustrations. All of these sources work in concert to form the context that "muddle-brained" Ketzia must squeeze herself into as a growing girl in the novel. Young Ketzia reads of "Fanny Annie," the orphan who becomes the sexual servant of seven men; a few chapters later, an illustration of Snow White surrounded by seven leering dwarves appears; in between these two is a strange tale of a disoriented adult Ketzia crouched over and weeding while naked at the behest of boys she says are only in her head.

These strange interactions can be disconcerting, but they also help save the novel from predictability. Tucsonans might cringe a bit at the cliché image of Ketzia walking naked through the desert, outcast and hallucinating, and at the local coding she uses when locating her hotel on the "road of oracles." Still, the tales she fits Ketzia into in these chapters are diverse enough, and the language lovely enough, to keep the scenarios fresh. And Ketzia's more embarrassing forays into lyricism are more than made up for when Bernheimer's prose blurs into poetry: "Beer bottles, whiskey bottles, brown glass, green / They fell to the lawn and I'd feel serene / Adam was king to my stilted queen."

"In the end I was not a good wife for Adam. I was faithful, pretty and mostly kind, but somehow this did not add up." Ketzia remains appealing throughout the novel, but the tales that comprise her also do not add up to a complete woman character. It is clever of the author from a sociological standpoint to have Ketzia tell the reader she prefers transcribing the words of others to saying out loud what she really wants to say, in light of society's expectation that a woman will complement a man's story instead of writing her own. But this is Ketzia's story, so a hint of self-determination might have enriched her characterization and the novel's depth. As Bernheimer writes it instead, when Ketzia's prince leaves her, her story is over.

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