The Charmed Wife, by Olga Grushin

I’m not sure if parents are aware of the power of the stories they read and tell their children as those children are falling asleep. I’m sure most parents just want the kids to fall asleep so that they can get some sleep. But for the narrator of Olga Grushin’s devastating and clever novel, The Charmed Wife, those stories became her whole reality. But, above all, this book asks us, what happens when “happily ever after” doesn’t turn out?

A woman we come to know as Cinderella is not happy. She got everything she wanted—a handsome prince, luxurious lifestyle, and two lovely children—but her life is only perfect on the outside. No matter what Cinderella tries, nothing seems to help her recapture the glow of her early married life. Her handsome prince is has no time for her. And, the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes how distant and detached he is. Her life of luxury in their castle is lonely, boring, and unfulfilling. Her children are the only perfect thing in her life, but Cinderella needs more than motherhood.

Cinderella spills out her story in a flood of combined fairy tales. Even though Cinderella is desperately unhappy, I had a lot of fun looking for references to all sorts of tales and stories. I also love seeing Cinderella’s advisors—a witch and her fairy godmother—sparring with each other as they offer conflicting courses of action for Cinderella. The witch would be happy to help Cinderella kill Prince Roland, so long as she stops dithering. And her fairy godmother has all sorts of solutions for helping Cinderella patch over the widening cracks in her marriage and life, so long as she stops looking for problems.

What astonished me most about The Charmed Wife is the twist that Grushin pulls off in the last third of the novel. It came on so slowly that I wonder if it even qualifies as a twist, but what Grushin did completely transformed the novel into something I was not expecting. It was nothing short of brilliant. The shift brings questions from the beginning of the novel about how much we are willing to do to secure our ambitions (even if what we seek is not something that will actually make us happy) into stark relief as Cinderella (we do eventually learn her real name) is forced to make hard decisions.

The Charmed Wife is an extraordinary read. I would recommend it highly for readers who love fiction about women finding themselves after years of trying to force themselves into lives that don’t fit, as well as for readers who love seeing fairy tales put to new uses.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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