by A.M. Justice
Written by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
Artwork by Mary Ann Strandell
Art mirrors life, even for authors of fantasy. Here on the Guild of Dreams, Chantal Boudreau has written a lot about how her interests inform her work (her coffee essay is a favorite); Autumn Birt and Steven Montano have both provided us with photo essays showing their influences in the natural world; and Scott Bury has told us about his inspirations from family members to the change in seasons. I’ve also blogged about my real-life influences, and on the home page of my website, you’ll find some real-world pictures that serve as location shots of Knownearth (they’re there on the homepage, just scroll down). Jane Rosenberg LaForge wrote an entire novel-memoir hybrid in which she traces the key elements of her fantasy to people, places, and events from her youth in 1970s Los Angeles. In the spirit of LaForge’s novel, this blog is a hybrid review-reminiscence.
A mutual friend introduced me to LaForge about a month ago, and we met for lunch before I read her book (which I bought). We commiserated over the challenges of raising children in New York City, and we shared stories of parents and ex’s. LaForge was funny, charming, and wise, and I enjoyed our time together. A few times over lunch, she’d mention a painful family dynamic and then say, “Read the book,” to close the topic. Yet it wasn’t until I did read the book that I realized how much LaForge and I have in common. As children and teens, she and I hovered on the fringes of school society; we both took ballet (never excelling at it); we both failed to tame unruly hair; and we both suffered the indignity of a smarter sibling. We both loved horses (although my mother pulled me from riding lessons after my first fall, so my horse-love was the abstract kind) and depended on friends and parents to ferry us to school dances and parties, thanks to delayed driving lessons. (I was further transportation-impaired because I didn’t learn how to ride a bicycle until the week before I left for college.) We both attended high school in Southern California, although her beaches lined the Pacific, while mine skirted the Colorado River, four hours east in a fast car on Interstate 10.
What really struck home about An Unsuitable Princess, however, is that it’s a book about regret and a plea for forgiveness. Most of my work involves some sort of failure, and the quest for redemption afterward. LaForge’s memoir culminates in an “if only” moment, which sank into the earth of her imagination and blossomed into a lovely story about isolation and rejection and the redemptive power of loyalty and love. We all have those youthful moments when we behaved less than admirably—you can find my real-life regrets catalogued in the essay collection Four Doors Open. LaForge’s real-life regret echoes backward through her fantasy, working magic on the reader, illuminating the depths of a story that, until you reach that pivotal moment in the memoir, seems to be merely a light fantasy about a young man in love with a mute outcast.
Set in an imaginary land resembling Elizabethan England, the fantasy features a nobleman and a blacksmith’s apprentice who both owe their lives to the ministrations of a young witch named Jenny. Both men seek to help her, in defiance of the queen, who ordered Jenny shunned. After Jenny disappears, a rescue mission unravels the mystery of her speechlessness and pariah-status. True to the period in detail and manners, the fantasy is beautifully written in a poetic, dreamy style that still echoes days after I finished the book. The narrative does start slow—it didn’t immediately hook me—but it gains momentum and emotional weight, becoming quite a powerful story by the end. An epistolary chapter—a fictional memoir within the fantasy framed by the real-life memoir—was particularly affecting as a starkly beautiful, heart-wrenching chronicle of the blacksmith’s foot-soldiering in a pointless war. From this point on in the narrative, the courage and heroism of the main characters, their loyalty and love for one another, captured me and and continues to haunt my thoughts.
Like the fictional tale, the true story took a while to grab my interest. Written in a modern, journalistic style, the memoir lacks the color and beauty of the fantasy. I suppose the distinct styles are meant to help the reader stay oriented to the real vs the fantasy world, but I would have enjoyed a more poetic, less prosaic approach to LaForge’s remembrances. Early on, I also resented the interruptions posed by the Laurel Canyon factoids every few paragraphs. The reader can easily skip the memoir (or the fantasy), because the two sections are typeset differently, and I considered doing so at first. However, I grew used to the author’s asides and began to enjoy them, particularly as she left her childhood behind and began chronicling her teens. The last sections, detailing LaForge’s experience working at the original Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire, fascinated me—in high school I longed to dress up in Elizabethan costume and work the Faire. (I was in my late twenties when I finally made it to a Faire—the one in Northern California—but I attended as a paying customer and by that age was too self-conscious to dress in garb.) LaForge’s “if only” moment—the regrettable action that fuses fantasy and memoir together into a deeply moving tale—resonated as something I might easily have done. And I might well have translated that event into a tale about someone who acts heroically instead of selfishly (in fact, I do that every time I write a story).
An Unsuitable Princess has a few other flaws. Occasional malapropisms and instances of missing or extra words kicked me out of the story more often than I would like. In compensation, the Kindle and full-color editions include stunning artwork by Mary Ann Strandel that compliments the narrative, while not quite illustrating it.
Overall, I would give An Unsuitable Princess 4 out 5 stars. The fantasy portion is a lovely story, quiet, sad, and uplifting; the memoir is insightful, often funny, and wise, like the author.
An Unsuitable Princess, by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
Full-color print edition, $44.99
Black and white print edition, $16.99
A.M. Justice writes fiction from distant times and places and chronicles journeys in the here and now. A confident driver these days, she nevertheless prefers roaming her Brooklyn neighborhood, looking for inspiration, on her own two feet. You can follow her on Twitter (@AMJusticeWrites) or join the Citizenry of Knownearth on her Facebook page.