Coover, Robert. Briar Rose. New York: Grove Press, 1998.
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This short novel (86 pages) invites the reader into Briar Rose’s dreams during her long sleep. We also get to experience the thoughts of the prince and the wicked fairy. In her dream state, Briar Rose frequently speaks with the wicked fairy who put her in this predicament, and the wicked fairy tells her over and over again various versions of the Sleeping Beauty tale. Readers who are not familiar with the various versions will not appreciate this aspect as much as those who are familiar with the different versions. Briar Roses’ reaction to these tales is always disapproval, with responses like, “But it’s terrible!” (upon hearing that the prince who broke the spell was already married or that the princess was raped as she slept). In a way it seems that the author is poking fun at the earlier versions of the tale which contain such gruesome elements, while at the same time using Briar Rose’ reaction to these tales as a ways to show how young audiences might feel about the stories, as Briar Rose is indeed a young girl. We learn that the wicked fairy often enjoys sharing these horrid tales just to make the young girl’s sleep that much more unpleasant. The thing that makes the book so different is the nature of the dreams; I had always imagined Sleeping Beauty/Briar Rose’s long sleep to be restful and peaceful, where Robert Coover puts the exact opposite notion out there for readers to consider.
The wicked fairy also speaks about things that I’m sure many people have considered when reading the traditional tale, such as, “Has that smug sleeper paused to consider how she will look and smell after a hundred years, lying comatose and unattended in an unchanged bed? A century of collected menses alone should stagger the lustiest of princes” (6). In many versions, Sleeping Beauty is dusty or covered in cobwebs, but really, the reality would be absolutely horrific in smell and appearance (I know “reality” is an odd choice of words here). In this sense the fairy is sort of like the voice of reason of the story. The prince, who we also hear from throughout the book, is motivated first to wake the princess out of duty and for the desire to be a hero, much more so than to find true love. In an interesting twist, the prince does indeed make his way through briars to wake a princess, but we find out at the end that it was the wrong princess, not Briar Rose. When he goes to awaken Briar Rose, his motives have changed because he has had the experience of being married to someone who is not a good match for him. The story ends just as the prince is about to kiss Briar Rose, and we are left to create our own ending. I thought this was a very creative and pleasurable read and recommend it to any fairy tale fan.