The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne was an unintended adventure. I did not seek this book out, but it fell into my hands, and I gave it a go. There was probably a reason this story did not make it onto my carefully crafted TBR, and now I know why.
Haelewise has a simple and solitary life as the only daughter of a poor fisherman and the local midwife. Due to her fainting spells and unsettling dark eyes, Haelewise keeps close to her mother’s side lest the religious townsfolk decide she is too odd and dangerous. Her father is a religious man and the family keeps up a pious front; however, Haelewise’s mother secretly clings to her own belief system. Haelewise captures glimpses of her mother’s offerings and rituals but fails to learn the truth before her mother falls ill and dies. After her father abandons her, the town quickly blames Haelewise for their problems and calls for her death. Fleeing the only life she’s known, Haelewise decides to seek out Mother Gothel in the woods to untangle her mother’s mysterious beliefs.
There is a lot that I did not enjoy about Haelewise’s story, but the introduction and conclusion were by the far the worst parts of this book. The story opens in the present day with Professor Eisenberg who studies the treatment of German women in the middle ages. In her hunt to publish a book and achieve tenure, she is contacted by a woman with an old manuscript and she wants the professor to take a look at it. The professor obliges, and when she opens the book, Haelewise’s tale begins. And that is the last time you hear from the professor until the book’s epilogue, where she hurriedly reveals that she will share this tale with the world. There was no purpose for this story to be set up by a present-day character. It was a weird choice that did not expand on Haelewise’s journey and it feels disconnected from the entire book. It feels like a metaphor for the author’s journey to publish something herself and it is immersion breaking for no added value.
Reading The Book of Gothel was a strange experience. The book cycled through many different identities and didn’t know what it wanted to be. Was this a story about how Rapunzel came to be in the tower? Or is it the origin of Mother Gothel? When the book settled into the latter, Haelewise herself shifted constantly. Her motivation changed to serve the plot at that moment. She wanted nothing else but to become a mother, but then she wanted to understand her abilities and join her mother’s religion. But then the story would shift wildly and Haelewise wanted nothing more than to be with her childhood love. Once that was sought after, she would change again and value being a mother above all. It was not a pleasant reading experience and I was annoyed by Haelewise’s fickle attitude.
I had no desire to know the “untold” story behind Rapunzel. Worst of all is that I don’t understand what this book is trying to say or add to the well-known tale. Retellings seem to be all the rage lately and the majority of stories I have encountered fail to inspire. The odd professor intro and outro makes it seem like the book is meant to showcase the plight of medieval women. But Haelewise’s story tries to justify, albeit poorly, why she took Rapunzel in the first place. This story is confusing and strange and leaves me with many questions and an unsatisfying feeling.
The Book of Gothel was unremarkable. If you’re a hardcore Rapunzel fan, you may find this book an interesting addition to the lore. But if you’re like me and looking for something worthwhile, you can skip this and tackle something else on your TBR.
Rating: The Book of Gothel – 4.5/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.