September 03, 2009

BOOKS: Godmother, Carolyn Turgeon (2009)

Once upon a time, Lil was given a task. By fairy standards, it wasn't even a difficult task: Get Cinderella to the ball. But in this re-telling of the story, Cinderella never did get to the ball, and as punishment for her failure, Lil was banished from the world of the fairies and forced to live among humans as one of us. Now, she's an old woman, working in a used bookstore in New York, and missing her old life -- her sister, her friends -- more than ever.

When the beautiful young Veronica walks into the store, the two women strike up a friendship, and Lil becomes convinced that Veronica is the key to her redemption; if only she can put Veronica together with her soulmate, all will be forgiven, and Lil will be allowed back into the fairy world.

Until about ten pages from the end, I loved this book. Lil narrates the story, alternating between her current life in New York and the story of Cinderella; her descriptions of the fairy world are hauntingly beautiful, and we get a real sense of the magic that Lil feels she's lost. In the present day scenes, Turgeon does a fine job of showing us just how frustrating old age can be, and how invisible the elderly often are in our society. The relationship between Lil and Veronica is convincing, and it's an intergenerational friendship of a type we don't often see in fiction. The novel is a dark, brooding take on the fairy tale, and I was utterly enchanted by it.

But at the very end of the story, Turgeon throws in a plot twist that completely drains Godmother of all its mystery, its fantasy, its ambiguity. It brings the story crashing to earth with a great thud, and forces us to disregard everything Lil has told us. It utterly destroys what Turgeon has created; I can't remember reading a book that is so completely ruined by a bad ending. A terrible, tragic disappointment at the end of what might have been one of my favorite novels of the year.

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