Charm - Sarah Pinborough

Charm - Sarah Pinborough

There’s this 1973 Czechoslovak/East German film adaptation of the fairy tale that has been showing on TV every Christmas for as long as I can remember: Tři oříšky pro Popelku or Drei Haselnüsse für das Aschenbrödel. It is still one of my favourites, even though I cling more to the memory of it than actually watching it these days because it’s cringeworthy and over-the-top sweet at times. And it’s IMPOSSIBLE to watch with the boyfriend hovering nearby, groaning and rolling his eyes. But I know – for a fact! – that the film has charmed its way into the lives and memories of generations of girls and women (at least of those grown up in the Eastern bloc countries). It’s the opposite of any Disney versions despite it’s almost ridiculous cuteness (accentuated by the brilliant film score) and happy endings. The heroine in the film is what you’d call a strong female character. She runs around in boy’s clothing and hunts when it suits her and mocks and provokes the prince, who has to woe and convince her of his worth by solving the riddles she poses to him. She endures the hardships of life and the mistreatment at the hands of her stepmother and stepsister without complaint. The actress portraying this version of Cinderella, to my mind, is one of the prettiest women I’ve seen. The prince, despite being a bit foppish in his tight pantaloons and tiny hats, was definitely worthy of being a little girl’s crush.

For me, the memory of this film is what every new Cinderella adaptation has to compete with. And, oh boy, Sarah Pinborough did not exactly set out to make the reader fall in love with her Cinderella. There’s no glossed-over depiction of the silently suffering, kind, loved-by-all heroine. We are treated to a very real, sometimes petulant and demanding young woman. And instead of gradually revealing her redeeming qualities and making the reader understand and sympathise with her earlier antics, the things that progressively come to light, while not wholly condemning, make her out like a spoilt, ungrateful brat. However, Cinderella is by no means the villain in this tale. Nor are the surrounding characters flawless and perfect. Even though I developed a strong dislike for Cinders in the early stages of the novel, I couldn’t help but hope for her to find her way and right some wrongs as the story continued. Not that I had much hope that Sarah Pinborough would comply to my wishes, having read Poison.

I think that I’m still owed some more answers but will have to wait for the third book in the series. Some of the loose threads in Poison have been taken up and brought to satisfying conclusions that still leave opportunities for future entanglements. That’s been done very nicely, I might add. I hope that the ending gave hints at what (and whose stories) to expect in the next instalment.

I’ve seen Poison described as a sexy, steamy, even smutty book and I didn’t concur with the sentiment after having finished the book. Sure, there was a bit of sex there, and it wasn’t vanilla or romantic, but it wasn’t particularly graphic or scandalous either. Not that I minded. It was there. It served the story. It didn’t make me feel awkward or embarrassed or disgusted. It was completely in line with the characterisation.

Even though there’s very little in terms of actual, erm… penetration in Charm, I have to admit that I found the sensual (or erotic?) scenes here racier by far. It wasn’t much more than wild fantasising and “heavy petting” but more intense. I don’t know, maybe it was the heat wave making me more perceptible but my eyes certainly went wide a couple of times and my breath might have been held for a few seconds. Might! I don’t remember. It’s all a blur!

The thrill reading these scenes was in that the reader always knew or was able to deduct more than the characters involved in these sexual acts and would invariably start guessing at the possible consequences and repercussions, while the protagonists were swept away by passion and bliss. And again, Pinborough does not simply insert gratuitous sex in order to have her novels marketed as “sexy romps”. It’s all in keeping with the characters. A sex scene reveals more about a characters selfishness and forbearance than a piece of dialogue.

While I enjoyed Poison, I really, really liked Charm, which is no meagre feat considering the tough competition of a 1973 Czechoslovak film it had to go against.