This retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” not only takes us through a door [one of Harrow’s favorite tropes] into the multiverse, but switches the story around to be a feminist manifesto with a lesbian slant.
Zinnia Gray is twenty-one, and presumably will die soon, having been one of the unfortunate victims of corporate malfeasance from toxic dumping in rural Ohio. No one born with the resulting genetic damage ever made it to age twenty-two, and as the story begins, it is Zinnia’s twenty-first and presumably last birthday.
For her last year, she informs us:
“. . . really I have nothing planned but a finite number of family game nights, during which my parents will stare tenderly at me across the dining room table and I will slowly suffocate under the terrible weight of their love.”
Because Zinnia knew she was cursed to die, she identified with the story of “Sleeping Beauty.” Starting in childhood when she insisted on Sleeping Beauty character bed sheets, to being a college student majoring in Folk Studies and Anthropology at Ohio University, she has made the story the theme of her life.
Zinnia’s best friend “Charm” (short for Charmaine) arranges a 21st Sleeping Beauty themed birthday party for Zinnia replete with a spindle in an old abandoned tower. When Zinnia pricks her finger on it at the stroke of midnight as a joke, suddenly she is thrust into a different universe, waking up in the bedroom of Princess Primrose. Primrose was cursed to prick her own finger on her 21st birthday, which was the day before. She would then fall into a deep sleep for 100 years, unless she was rescued by the kiss of a handsome prince. Since her father the King has had all the spindles destroyed, she has resisted her fate so far, but Primrose knows it is only a matter of time. The only trouble is, Princess Primrose has no desire to be rescued by the pompous Prince Harold or any other prince for that matter – she would prefer a princess, if the truth be told.
Thus Zinnia ends up with a couple of problems to solve: she needs to get back to her own universe, but first she needs to help Primrose escape her curse. She is aided by the fact that she still has some memory left on her smart phone, which improbably still works, and can get assistance from Charm. Zinnia snaps a photo of Primrose to send to Charm, who, also gay like Primrose, is immediately smitten. Added to her devotion to her best friend, Charm has plenty of motivation to work on a solution.
This all may sound over-the-top, but Harrow manages to carry it off. With Zinnia’s sense of irony and self-awareness, she helps convince readers to believe in her and in this story that gets more convoluted by the chapter but also more “charming,” as it were.
One of my favorite passages has Zinnia explaining to Primrose why she would find Zinnia’s world appealing:
“You wouldn’t be a princess anymore, but you’re hot and white and young, so you could be pretty much anything else you wanted.”
As for Zinnia, she discovers that as one moves among universes, “fairy tales are flexible about gender roles.” She also finally figures out what she wants to do with the rest of her life, however long it may be: “I’m just looking for a better once-upon-a-time.”
Discussion: As Harrow has done in her other books, she turns preconceptions upside down with her through-the-door-to-other-worlds perspective and her unblinking honesty in interrogating hard subjects. What happens when you know someone you love is going to die? All too often, others get so focused on their own pain of the impending loss, they either suffocate or alienate the person who actually is the one needing the most care. We also see how perceptions of time between those who are dying and those who aren’t – “every minute has to count” versus “all the time in the world” – are as different as if these people did reside in different universes. And of course, in so many ways, they do. Harrow shows how fairy tales aren’t so unlikely and unfounded, when you universalize them into common human experiences.
Evaluation: I have found all of Harrow’s books so far to be entertaining, thought-provoking, and offering fresh enlightened perspectives on a number of subjects.
Published by Tordotcom, 2021