Release Date: March 12, 2013
Publisher: Random House Children's Publishers
Add it: Goodreads
When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi.
Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.
I was already familiar with the Bluebeard story by Charles Perrault (which, in case you’re worried about clicking the link, is actually a Public Domain story because it’s old as the hills) so I was quite excited to read this adaptation because I’d enjoyed the original so much. ALAS. Strands of Bronze and Gold, in some ways, follows the original quite closely and in other ways it deviates inexplicably into the realm of nonsensical and more than that, pretty bloody offensive. Bluebeard, a nickname (just go with it) in this novel given to the Monsieur de Cressac, remains a mysteriously rich bachelor with a penchant for pretty wives but not so much for the old ball and chain. Sophia, like her original counterpart, is curious, naive and beautiful who is initially fascinated by de Cressac.
De Cressac is as disappointing a villain as Sophia is infuriating as a protagonist and this is because despite the absolutely horrendous crimes he’s committed, the novel and in particular Sophia herself paints him in a very sympathetic light. She consistently views him as a love interest irregardless of his increasing violence toward her; Sophia decides not to leave him because he ‘needs’ her; this is supposed to be a parallel toward the classic Beauty/Beast narrative, in which the benevolent kindness of a beautiful girl changes the ways of the Beast (a problematic trope in itself). EXCEPT WE KNOW HOW THIS STORY ENDS, SO. For another example and trust me, there are plenty, toward the end of the novel when De Cressac has been revealed as the murderer and has ATTEMPTED TO KILL SOPHIA, her first words about it all are that he could have been a great man were it not for the circumstances. Like, I am not here for apologist narratives regarding abuse and victimisation, least of all when that ends in murder.
There is also a bizarre love triangle sub-plot with the town Reverend, complete with secret meetings in the woods and letters hidden in tree trunks. I don’t even know, it was so ridiculous and wasn’t improved in any way by Sophia’s lingering attachment to de Cressac or the obvious instalove aspect of her relationship with the Reverend. Whatever, I kept getting distracted from all the terrible by debating with myself on whether a man of cloth could even take a wife. Can you tell how engrossing this novel was. Can. You.
All of this, however awful, didn’t even come close to my biggest issue with this novel. There is unfortunately a truly gross sub-plot involving slavery and the Underground Railroad. De Cressac keeps slaves on his estate, which our heroine is somewhat uncomfortable about but ignores until, I shit you not, she becomes bored and disillusioned with her trinkets and lacklustre love life so decides to help the less fortunate. Yeah, this novel turns slavery into a plot device for a privileged, spoiled little girl. Sophia claims to care about civil rights and several times states that everyone should be free – well that would be great and all except this same character flits between indifference and sudden White Saviour feels. The novel doesn’t even try to hide this – Sophia, when she’s feeling particularly sympathetic, refers to slaves as ‘Africans’ which is hilarious to me in itself because of the ingrained, infuriating privilege inherent in this comment suggests that in her mind slaves only came from Africa, but then when she has more pressing issues such as a torn dress or woe, unrequited love because the Reverend didn’t touch her or whatever, she reverts back to referring to the slaves as Negros. One term apparently is better than the other but what this novel fails to understand is that Sophia never stops seeing the slaves as just that – she uses blanket terms because when push comes to shove, their plight is just not important to her. Am I seriously meant to view this character as an Abolitionist? U G H.
Then there is the added fun of Sophia repeatedly comparing herself with the slaves and viewing them as luckier than she because they have relationships that she doesn’t or pitying them for their shabby clothing (THIS IS A THING THAT HAPPENS, I AM NOT JOKING). Sophia also displays an astonishing amount of stupidity throughout the novel by advising slaves to just leave. Yes, because they are free to go wherever they please, Sophia. I hate this girl so fucking much. There is even a Magical Negro in this novel who typically is a grandmother living in the woods -_____- Notably, every POC in this book is of a lower class than our protagonist and basically serves to aid Sophia but with no stories of their own. It’s utterly infuriating. And if you weren’t already convinced by how privileged and borderline racist this novel is we can look to the end of the book in which Sophia is captured by Garvey, de Cressac’s right-hand, and a POC. Let’s also add that previous to this Garvey is implied to be a rapist at worst and guilty of sexual assault at best – against two women, Talitha and Odette, one white and one of colour. It is deeply unsurprising that Garvey is only unveiled as a villain once Odette, a white woman formally of upper class and now working as Sophia’s maid, is cornered by him. The end of the novel, which you’re supposed to view as a happy ending, pleasantly has Sophia becoming rich and then wishing to free all the slaves on the estate but still somehow believing that they’ll never leave after then to live their own lives. I just…this book, man.
Also fun stuff:
- Sophia mentions at one point the novel Jane Eyre, which has a POC (Rochester’s wife) living in the attic and described as little more than an animal. Yeah, think about what Sophia’s interest claimed to be and then let that sink in.
- Our lovely protagonist also talks about the women de Cressac has killed and is horrified because, apparently, who could kill a ‘decent’ woman. It’s always fun when a female character distinguishes between the right and wrong kind of woman to be.
- De Cressac is fond of dressing up Sophia in clothing from around the world – she wears a Sari and he compares her to Scheherazade. Who was Persian. Saris originate from India. I cannot.
- This novel is so confused about what it wants to be. Is it a horror? A mystery? A romance? Paranormal, even? WE JUST DON’T KNOW.
In short: don’t read this book. It’s awful and frankly irresponsible. If you don’t know or aren’t willing to put time into research so that a sub-plot about such a significant time in human history makes sense, just don’t write about it. The history and culture of people does not exist as a plot device, nor should it ever become one for the sake of attempting to turn a kiddie pool of a novel into an abyss (thanks, S1 Caroline).