Donna Jo Napoli
Wendy Lamb Books
Donna Jo Napoli impresses again with her most recent fairytale retelling, Dark Shimmer. After her mother dies, Dolce, a mirror-maker’s assistant who was always made to feel like a monster and an outcast, flees her home island at 15 years old and happens upon a wealthy widower and his daughter Bianca. She returns with them to Venice where she marries the widower and becomes step-mother to the beautiful Bianca. Dolce is insecure in Venetian high society and so secretly starts to make the finest miniature mirrors to give to the other women as gifts at first and eventually as a way to buy the freedom of the noble families’ slaves. However making mirrors requires contact with quicksilver, or mercury, which is making Dolce quite sick both physically and mentally. She becomes so mentally unstable that, out of jealously of Bianca’s beauty, she attempts to have Bianca killed while her husband is away, but her plan is foiled when the man she hired takes pity on the girl and hides her on an island. Will Dolce be able to find Bianca and finish the job? Will she be brought to justice? Or will she simply fade away from mercury poisoning? Napoli stays true to the original fairytale she is interpreting (I won’t tell you which, though you may have guessed by now) while putting a twist on the story behind it and creating some sympathy for the villain. Includes an interesting author’s note and a bibliography of her research sources, unusual for a fictional novel.
Donna Jo Napoli’s fairytale retellings are so clever. Much like she did in Breath, her retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, in Dark Shimmer Napoli takes historical context and place into account while constructing her story, coming up with clever ways to justify character’s behavior and make them much more complicated than in the original stories. She clearly does her research, as we can see from the bibliography she included in the back matter of Dark Shimmer. I always feel like I learn something new when I read her books. She also doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of fairytales; there is no Disney-ifying here. Much like the original stories that make today’s parents cringe, Napoli’s books keep the grotesque and macabre – her characters, both good and bad, suffer, and the villain gets what is coming to them in the end.