Published by Regan Books
Review by W. R. Greer
The world had changed mightily in the years preceding 1502. Columbus had discovered the new world. The Renaissance was flourishing in Florence, and the Italian city states continued with their wars and shifting alliances. Savonarola had already had his "bonfire of the vanities" and been hanged and burned to death by the Church. The evil Pope Alexander VI was in command in Rome, and the feared apocalypse hadn't happened at the close of the third set of 500 years since the birth of Jesus. On a remote hilltop near Tuscany was a small estate called Montefiore, run by a widower, Vicente de Nevada, with an only child, a daughter named Bianca.
Vicente regarded his Bianca. Of her beauty there was no doubt, and no description would serve. But the name was correct. Bianca, a name referring to the polished whiteness of her skin, almost a marble from the Carrara region; and de Nevada, the father's family name, betraying his own humble status in the outlands of Aragon, but pertinent here: of the snowy slopes.
Gregory Maguire has taken the tale of Snow White and retold it as a piece of fantasy and historical fiction. In 1502, Bianca de Nevada is a seven-year old girl who never leaves Montefiore. Far from the beaten path, the estate seems isolated from the constant political upheavals and minor wars being fought in central Italy. Life is simple and governed by the seasons. Bianca is a well-behaved girl, raised by her beloved father and tended by the cook, Primavera, and the doddering old priest, Fra Ludovico. The Snow White fable would not be complete without the element of evil, and into this pastoral idyll, Gregory Maguire inserts the siblings, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, two of the pope's children by his Roman mistress.
The House of Borgia was infamous for its corruption, incest, murder, poison, hedonism, and cruelty. Cesare was the leader of the family's armies, consolidating their land holdings and removing any dukes that stood in their way. Lucrezia was not only his lover, but given to abuses of power to soothe her every whim. Murder was but a hobby for her. With their father's papal support, they were untouchable. As Mirror Mirror begins, Vicente has found a mirror in a lake on his estate, but how it got there is incomprehensible to all. Soon after, Cesare and Lucrezia arrive, needing the isolation of the estate for their own purposes. Cesare also has a use for Vicente, and offers him a choice. He can either be a conscript in his army and face a certain death, or he can partake a quest for him. He must travel to an unreachable Greek monastery and steal from them a branch containing three apples from the original Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden. Having no real choice in the matter, a dejected Vicente sets out on his quest, leaving his daughter in the care of the beautiful and evil Lucrezia Borgia.
Watching all this is one of the dwarves, hoping to retrieve their lost mirror. These dwarves are not your Disney garden variety, but more like another race altogether, born of the earth and a different time. The watchful dwarf tell us that "dwarves can barely talk. Speaking uses us up, speeds us up." To the humans, the dwarfs look no more than animated stone. They live underground in their own world, and move through the earth with ease.
The table is set for the story: Lucrezia, the evil surrogate mother, Bianca, the innocent and beautiful girl, the bewitched mirror, and the group of dwarves. If this were just a retelling of the Snow White fable, it would be a mildly entertaining story with new twists. Gregory Maguire has fashioned something altogether different: a deeper story about the seduction of evil, the nature of man, the end of the age of magical creatures and mystery, and the beginning of the age of reason. He has given us a darker, but more human tale, where hope resides not in the charm of a prince, but in the power of love. And it's a much richer and more satisfying fable than what was supplied by the Brothers Grimm.
The most one-dimensional character in Mirror Mirror is Bianca, but that's not really surprising since she spends most of the book asleep or suspended in time. As the symbol of innocence and purity, though, she's the center of the novel around which everything else revolves. The Borgia siblings are the most interesting; conflicted evil characters often are. Cesare is an ambitious man, drunk with power, and assured of his own importance. He's also a religious man, seeking prayer and penance, enjoying the delight of sinning again while in a state of grace. Several years after arriving at Montefiore, his health is failing and his ambitious plans are collapsing around him. He asks 11-year old Bianca about what she knows of the world.
"I've my small view of the world," she told him. "I seldom leave the farm -- only once or twice to the village at the ford of the river a few miles on, and then only with my father. Years ago. This is world enough for me, up here. I play with the birds. I climb the apple trees. I used to try to make friends with the servant girls, but since my father left, they have gone away too. Primavera feeds me, and when he remembers, Fra Ludovico sees that I keep to my devotions. I've learned a few letters and I can write my name, some modest sentences. I can swim; the gooseboy taught me how. I milk the cows when the farmer is too drunk to come up the hill to do it. I collect the eggs and help pull beans from their runners and tomatoes from their vines. I help Primavera move the potted lemon trees into the limonaia for the winter. In the summer I pick oleander, lavender bells, and fennel for the shrine in the chapel wall. I watch the moon in its swelling and subsiding."
He looked at her as if she were reciting the most intimate of love sonnets. "What a treasure your ignorance is," he said.
Primavera and Fra Ludovico are the comic relief of Montefiore, constantly bickering with each other, but also providing the anchor and stability to the estate in Vicente's absence. Even they have to change their behaviors to survive once the specter of evil moves into their lives, and do their best to protect Bianca from the same. The dwarves in Mirror Mirror are a new creation, suffering a metamorphosis from sub-intelligent geological creatures to something more human-like the more time they spend in the presence of man, especially once Bianca arrives in their midst. It's a change, left for both the dwarves and the reader to decide, that may or may not be for the best.
The most interesting character in this novel is Lucrezia Borgia. While this is the fable of Snow White, Mirror Mirror is really Lucrezia's story. Raised in the Vatican, married several times as an adolescent, with the marriages ending in annulment or murder of her husband so the next politically advantageous marriage can be arranged, her sons are raised without her, and she suffers through many miscarriages and childbirths. After the death of her father and the exile of her beloved brother, the house of Borgia is left in disarray. Lucrezia knows she's corrupt, and also knows she's unable to be any other way. Even her patronage of the arts doesn't assuage her guilt. The one person, symbolic of all that she's lost and all that's she never had, whose very existence cuts her to the core is Bianca. She muses about life at one point:
We are never enough to ourselves because we can never be enough to another. Any one of us walks into any room and reminds its occupant that we are not the one they most want to see. We are never the one. We are never enough.
The holy find this some mincing proof of God. Damn them.
Mirror Mirror is a stellar tale because it shows mankind with its own contradictions, not just the good and evil that exist simultaneously in the world, but within each person too. Religious undertones cut through the novel. Most of the understated humor in the novel pokes fun at the corruption of the Church and the uncertainty any one person has whether God does or does not really exist. Using the historical Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia as vessels of evil was a stroke of genius by Gregory Maguire. Born of the evil within the Church, perhaps their salvation can only come from the Tree of Knowledge if Vicente can ever find it and return it to them.
There is so much to enjoy in Mirror Mirror, the fleshed-out fairy tale, the setting in a historical era when the world changed in quantum leaps, the evil of Lucrezia Borgia that can't help itself, and the hope and love that always exists in the innocence of Bianca.
This was my first introduction to one of Gregory Maguire's novels. Wicked was the story of the Wicked Witch of the West, and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a retelling of the Cinderella tale. Now I may have to read those too. If you've read his other novels, then Mirror Mirror is probably a must to add to your collection. If not, this novel is a fine place to start in the tale he weaves of a fantastical world that's all too real.
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