A Review of Menna van Praag’s “The Sisters Grimm”
Menna van Praag’s latest book, The Sisters Grimm, kind of feels like it was made for these times. While it is an urban fantasy tale that echoes the work of Neil Gaiman, this story owes much to the present-day theatrics of men such as Harvey Weinstein. This is the tale of four women who are bound together through a fantasy world, but their lives in the real world are tortured by men. It’s a complicated story, and because it has five main characters each narrating from their own viewpoint throughout this overlong 450-page affair, there is a lot of plot. Lots of plot — though very little of consequence actually happens until the end of the novel. I know this is sounding like I’m on a Debbie Downer of sorts, but I had high hopes for this volume (said to be part of a planned series), only to find it ultimately mediocre.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a fun book, sure, and any novel that encourages the reader to escape to another dimension, at least for a short while, is bound to have its plusses. However, it does suffer from cardboard characters and more clichés than you can shake a stick at. (See what I did there?) Reading this book is a little like watching bread rise, only to realize through the baking of the bread that you didn’t add enough yeast, so it’s turned out all lumpy and uneven. Part of the problem is that there are too many main characters clamoring for attention, and, in the end, the book doesn’t give them enough to do — although a lot is going on in their lives. The novel also doesn’t resolve some of the problems facing these characters — a beloved grandmother dying, a coffee café that is up for sale, a young boy that needs to be looked after, and so on.
In trying to encapsulate the story of The Sisters Grimm in a paragraph feels impossible, but I’ll try. Basically, it is the story of a woman named Goldie, trying to make ends meet, who falls in love with a man named Leo (the fifth character alluded to earlier) who is trying to kill her, but conversely falls in love with her. It’s complicated. It’s also the story of Scarlet, who faces having the café she runs being bought out by a Starbucks — the owner is one Eli Wolfe (har de har har, subtly is not this book of modern fairy tale’s strong point if you image Scarlet to be the incarnation of Little Red Riding Hood for the iPhone age). It’s additionally the story of Liyana, who is in love with a Japanese girl but is being forced to marry a man for his money. It’s also the story of Bea, who loves to fly in gliders and fuck men in equal fashion. These four women used to be able to go to a place called Everwhere when they were little girls — a place of mist and fog where they held superpowers — but have been exiled on their 13th birthdays. They are meant to return on their 18th birthdays, which they all share. The problem with returning is that they will probably be killed by men like Leo, who are fallen stars who must kill women like Goldie in order to live. Orchestrating the whole thing is the girls’ father, Wilhelm Grimm (who also was the author of many famous fairy tales as a historical figure, though this is not the same Wilhelm Grimm of that of this novel’s), who for some reason wants the girls dead or for them to turn to a life of evil. Why? We never really find out.
The Sisters Grimm is one big fairy tale for the #MeToo era because just about every man in this novel is a lout — or turns out to be one. That’s my biggest problem with the book, and that of feminism, actually. You know, women do a lot of shit things, too, though I will concede that there are far fewer sex abusers who are women. This is a novel about the evil that men do, and is so pervasive in its “men are evil” refrain that I almost wanted to cut my penis off when I was reading this book. Well, not really, but I hope you get the point. Author van Praag’s viewpoint is rather skewed, and the only redeemable characters really turn out to be the women of this tale. In the end, The Sisters Grimm is a lot of fizzle and not much sizzle because nuance is not this book’s strong suit. By writing from a binary men = bad and women = good point of view, there’s not much subtlety. It would have been a far better book if there were a few men who weren’t interesting in groping the main female characters and had something to contribute other than wanting to obliterate the women of this fantasy.
In the end, The Sisters Grimm is digestible in small doses, and has a certain whiff of magic about it, but I wasn’t too taken by this. Again, it’s enjoyable enough as light entertainment and I’m sure its intended audience of female readers will find much to applaud here, but I wasn’t entirely won over simply because there wasn’t a man you could root for in the character list. Sure, Leo isn’t entirely all that bad, wanting to kill Goldie aside, but their scenes of lovemaking are so laughable that it reminded me a bit of all of the icky canoodling that went on in the worst Star Wars movie, Attack of the Clones. All in all, if you chose to give The Sisters Grimm a miss, you wouldn’t be missing much. Just a lot of plot that goes nowhere and a lot of men-hating all around. If you were to ask me, that’s pretty Grimm stuff indeed.
Menna van Praag’s The Sisters Grimm will be published by Harper Voyager on March 31, 2020.
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