Two of my favorite books of the past few years were written by Alix E. Harrow, so when I saw that she had a novella out, I put in a request at my library without even checking what it was about. Imagine my elation when I discovered that A Spindle Splintered is a postmodern, thoroughly meta exploration of a fairy tale, combining two my favorite story types into one package!
Sleeping Beauty is a bit problematic, especially in the Disney version – the princess is too passive, the story line too patriarchal (not to mention centered on a kiss that could never be consensual). But it has a special place in our narrator’s heart, because she, too, has lived her life under the weight of a curse – an incurable genetic disorder that will kill her before her twenty second birthday. In Sleeping Beauty, Zinnia Gray sees “[her] own shitty story made mythic and grand and beautiful. A princess cursed at birth. A sleep that never ends. A dying girl who refused to die.”
On her twenty first birthday, her best friend throws her a Sleeping Beauty-themed party in the guard tower of an abandoned prison, complete with a profusion of roses, tacky rhinestone crowns, and an honest to god spinning wheel. Of course, Zinnia pricks her finger on the spindle. That’s when Zinnia is whisked away to a fairy tale kingdom and meets Princess Primrose of Perceforest, who suffers from the traditional Sleeping Beauty curse. That’s when the fun really starts.
Zinnia’s acerbic wit and understanding of fairy tale tropes and history makes her a delightful person to spend a few hours with. While she is – in her own words – a dying girl, who follows what she has defined as “the dying girl rules,” this book is also a lot of fun. The narration spends plenty of time poking fun of fairy tale tropes, and the plot itself explodes those tropes from the inside. If you enjoy meta analysis, you’ll have a blast, but if that kind of self-aware commentary isn’t your thing, this might not be the book for you.
I can not say how well this story depicts life with a congenital, fatal disease like Generalized Roseville Malady. From where I’m sitting, it feels like a nuanced, balanced, and realistic depiction. The disease colors every part of Zinnia’s life, but it’s also not the full extent of who she is. Her struggles with friendships and with her parents’ grief felt realistic, but this may hit differently if you or a loved one suffers from a serious illness. While Generalized Roseville Malady is fictional, it obviously shares similarity with many real conditions.
At the end of the day, A Spindle Splintered isn’t only a story about illness. It’s also about deciding to live fully, accepting other people’s love, and how to make love a key, rather than a cage. If that sounds like your kind of thing, and you enjoy fractured fairy tales and self-referential humor, this is definitely a novella worth checking out.