Adele Geras,
Egerton Hall, Book 1:
The Tower Room

(Harcourt Brace & Co., 1990;
Harcourt, 2005)

There is no reason why a retelling of "Rapunzel" set in an all-female boarding school in the 1960s should not work. If 17-year-old Megan Thomas is no willowy fairy tale heroine, it makes sense that her strict legal guardian, Dorothy, is not a witch, but rather a chemistry teacher at Egerton Hall, and that Simon Findlay, the young man who scales the scaffolding of Megan's tower dorm room, is a laboratory assistant and one of very few males allowed in Egerton Hall.

Stranger set-ups for retold fairy tales have worked. Unfortunately, Adele Geras's The Tower Room, the first of three retold fairy tales in her Egerton Hall trilogy, lacks one essential ingredient: a sense of wonder. It isn't so much the absence of actual magic in the story; it's that the basic plot of "Rapunzel" has been stripped down to a pedestrian tale of teenage infatuation set within a British boarding school with all the usual accoutrements of classes, school friends, exams and teachers.

In terms of plot, The Tower Room does not stray far from its source except in cosmetic detail. Megan may not be literally trapped in a tower, but she maintains her lofty bedroom and long golden plait; Simon doesn't poke his eyes out on thorns at the inevitable showdown, but he does break his glasses. The superficial modern adaptations of the original story's details add little to the story, coming across instead as a bit indulgent, a bit self-complacent and probably unnecessary. However, the illicit affair and its consequences remain much the same, with one major difference: Dorothy, like Megan, falls for Simon, creating a potentially interesting love triangle.

It isn't, really, as Simon and Dorothy are both very underdeveloped characters who make surprisingly infrequent appearances. Because the story is told entirely in flashbacks by Megan to an initially unknown auditor, her voice, perceptions, emotions and self-confessedly purple poetry -- even with the clarity of hindsight -- drown out the voices of the two other key players in this drama. While Megan's two best friends are relatively well developed, Dorothy is a mere repressed icicle and Simon is almost a total cipher. What does emerge of his real personality suggests that he is an opportunist at best, a philanderer at worst. It is almost as much of a mystery why Megan falls in love (lust?) with him as why Dorothy does.

The romance is further compromised by Megan's realization of what a lie "happily ever after" really is. Megan's voice is wry as she recounts her recent past from her new situation in a dreary little flat in London. She understands that it is a different sort of tower, one of her own making, but a trap nonetheless. "It's easy to have love as your major preoccupation when you have no other urgent problems to think about," Megan observes cynically. An intriguing thought -- but one that, like the symbolism of her hair and the subtle difference between captivity and shelter, is left inadequately addressed by the end of the story.

Adele Geras is undeniably skillful at creating a detailed and convincing boarding school atmosphere. Beautifully poetic passages stand out amidst the purpleness, and Megan is an introspective and realistic teenage narrator. However, as a fairytale retelling, The Tower Room, unlike Donna Jo Napoli's Zel, is too shallow to add much to an appreciation of "Rapunzel." Nor, having swapped romance for modernism and reality, is the novel really successful as a love story. The Tower Room suffers the double misfortune of being at once too cynical for eager teenage romantics and too adolescent for older fairytale fans.

by Jennifer Mo
15 April 2006

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