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Briar Rose

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A powerful retelling of Sleeping Beauty that is "heartbreaking and heartwarming."

An American Library Association "100 Best Books for Teens"
An American Library Association "Best Books for Young Adults"

Ever since she was a child, Rebecca has been enchanted by her grandmother Gemma's stories about Briar Rose. But a promise Rebecca makes to her dying grandmother will lead her on a remarkable journey to uncover the truth of Gemma's astonishing claim: I am Briar Rose. A journey that will lead her to unspeakable brutality and horror. But also to redemption and hope.

241 pages, Hardcover

First published September 1, 1992

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About the author

Jane Yolen

889 books2,966 followers
Jane Yolen is a novelist, poet, fantasist, journalist, songwriter, storyteller, folklorist, and children’s book author who has written more than three hundred books. Her accolades include the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards, the World Fantasy Award, three Mythopoeic Awards, the Kerlan Award, two Christopher Awards, and six honorary doctorate degrees from colleges and universities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Born and raised in New York City, the mother of three and the grandmother of six, Yolen lives in Massachusetts and St. Andrews, Scotland.

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5 stars
4,030 (27%)
4 stars
5,221 (36%)
3 stars
3,711 (25%)
2 stars
1,117 (7%)
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360 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,576 reviews
Profile Image for Konstanze.
55 reviews18 followers
July 10, 2010
I'm really, really disturbed by the majority of two star reviews here dismissing the book because of its LGBT content. It's been two years since I read it, so I don't exactly remember how graphic it was, but if I had to make an educated guess it wasn't half as graphic as your average heterosexual romance novel.

Let me be clear here: I didn't like this book. At all. I didn't like it because the Holocaust story seemed tacked on and deliberately made to fit the fairy tale for dramatic effect and that just seems tasteless and wrong. Like, HEY I WANT TO WRITE A GRITTY FAIRY-TALE RETELLING OH I KNOW LET'S THROW IN THE HOLOCAUST.

I didn't like it because the author would throw in bits and pieces of German and Polish that were, at least in the case of German, grammatically incorrect. That fucking annoyed me because surely there was an editor involved who was actually paid for eliminating these slips! Editor: do your fucking work. It's not that hard to ask native speakers, either!

So yeah, I did not like this book. But now that I've read the reviews I'm kind of inclined to go up with my rating just to avoid being lumped together with all the people going on about the ~*~dangerous content~*~ of this book. THE DANGEROUS CONTENT THAT WAS ONE GAY CHARACTER DEAR GOD GET YOUR TIN FOIL HATS OUT THE WORLD IS GOING TO END. I mean, remember history class? The Nazi mass murder of millions of people because of their ethnicity, religion, disability, political and, yes, sexual orientation? And all you do is getting worked up over the portrayal of a homosexual character? DUDE THIS IS SO WRONG I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHERE TO BEGIN.

I'm sure such an offense to your delicate sensibilities is really hard to digest. A lot harder than the mass murder of millions of people because of their ethnicity, religion, disability, political and sexual orientation! I completely understand! Also, it's really a disappointment that (SPOILER) it was Briar Rose's prince who was gay! OH NOES! No sappy, neatly heterosexual romance against the background of mass murder which would make this so tragical I'd have to use up a whole box of Kleenex! HOW CAN YOU DEPRIVE ME OF MY SAPPY, NEATLY HETEROSEXUAL ROMANCE AGAINST THE BACKGROUND OF MASS MURDER!

In a nutshell, FACEPALM. There's a lot of reasons why one could dislike this book, what with the bad writing and shallow characterization and gratuitious Polish/German and, oh yes, the problematic use of the Holocaust as a plot device, so I suggest checking the priorities here.
Profile Image for emma.
1,869 reviews54.5k followers
April 13, 2017
1.25/5 stars

this just seems like a good idea, poorly executed. the writing style reminded me a lot of nancy drew for some reason - maybe because of how frequently it described appearances? but it was wordier and try-hardier. it was super boring and disappointing. the payoff of the reveal was not even close to worth it; the romance was gross and deeply unnecessary. this was not a fun reading experience AT ALL.

bottom line: do not recommend. bleh.
Profile Image for Madeline.
781 reviews47.2k followers
January 19, 2010
Becca has grown up hearing her grandmother (called "Gemma" because one of her granddaughters couldn't pronounce "grandma") tell the story of Sleeping Beauty to her and her sisters. Gemma's story is different from the widely-known version, however - in this one, Briar Rose has red hair (like Gemma) and lives in a castle where everyone falls asleep after an evil fairy sends a mist over everyone. When the prince comes to the castle, he kisses Sleeping Beauty, but she is the only one who wakes up.

When Gemma is on her deathbed, she gives Becca a cryptic instruction: "Promise me you will find the castle. Promise me you will find the prince. Promise me you will find the maker of the spells." Her grandmother's belongings, including a locked chest with a rose carved into the top, eventually lead Becca to Poland, and she begins to understand that the story of Briar Rose is actually the story of her grandmother's experiences during the Holocaust.

The word "haunting" doesn't really do this story justice. It's creepy and depressing and compelling, and I'm willing to overlook Jane Yolen's horrible dialogue (they're called contractions, Yolen - no one says "I am" instead of "I'm") because of it.

For me, the best parts of the story were told in Gemma's own voice, when Becca is remembering pieces of the Briar Rose story her grandmother told her. The little details that get changed, to let us know that there's something else to this story, are amazing. Here's my favorite: Gemma is telling Becca about the evil fairy that cursed Briar Rose and describes her as, "the one in black with big black boots and silver eagles on her hat. ...she said, 'I curse you, Briar Rose. I curse you and your father the king and your mother the queen and all your uncles and cousins and aunts. And all the people in your village. And all the people who bear your name.'"
That little detail about the silver eagles had to be mentioned a second time in the story before I figured it out: the Nazis wore black boots and had silver eagles on their uniforms. The evil fairy is the Nazis.

Sweet tapdancing Christ, that's creepy.

Read for: Social Justice in Young Adult Literature
Profile Image for Lisa Vegan.
2,802 reviews1,234 followers
May 17, 2018
Wow! I read it in one day and that is unusual for me. I couldn’t put it down.

It’s different from what I was expecting, I guess because her The Devil’s Arithmetic had a young teen protagonist and had more of a speculative fiction aspect, and I was afraid this would be pure fairy tale. However, this story is not fantasy but modern day & historical fiction Holocaust fiction, with fictional aspects added to Holocaust events – with a made up small group of people and one person in particular. It also works as psychological fiction.

Yes, the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale has its place here, and I saw a bit of Cinderella too.

It’s gorgeously told, sometimes horrifying and heartbreaking, sometimes even fun at times. It is an incredibly upsetting Holocaust story. I’m fine with the made up part. All historical fiction must do this to some extent. I did appreciate the author’s short note at the end where she does explain what the facts and what was fictionalized. The author’s note was a needed inclusion, though her deviation from what’s known is not 100% impossible, in my opinion.

I don’t want to give too much away except I will say that Becca is a lovely character and Gemma is a fascinating character, and the story is beautifully told.

This book is definitely for teens and adults and not children as the violence of the Holocaust is told in quite a bit of detail.

I can’t believe I waited so long to get to this one. I’m really happy that I finally read it.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
189 reviews8 followers
February 20, 2009
This novel retells a segment of the holocaust through the lens of a family story masquerading as a fairy tale. This device was interesting and ambitious, but it fell flat. I had a little trouble determine the intended audience for this book. The viewpoint character is a young woman, a recent college graduate still living at home. (At one point, we are gratuitously informed that she had watched one of the soft porn movies on late night tv.) But the simplicity of the language suggested a younger readership. I think the biggest disappointment is that the viewpoint character is supposed to be on a search to understand her Gemma's story. At the end of the book, the reader has been told a series of facts, but does not really understand "Gemma the woman" any better than at the beginning.
Profile Image for Marquise.
1,747 reviews611 followers
April 5, 2017
Mmm, I'm very sorry to say that this is by far the most implausible retelling of a classic fairy tale that I've read recently, and not because of historical inaccuracies or bad writing.

Simply put: it's because Yolen tries too hard to draw a parallel between the Charles Perrault tale of Briar Rose, a.k.a. The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, and the tribulations of Gemma/Gitl Mandelstein, a now elderly survivor of the Holocaust who obsessive-compulsively tells and retells the fairy tale to her three granddaughters, with the twist that she is in truth telling her own story of survival from the Chelmno concentration camp. Not a bad idea, no. In fact, very creative (the third star I'm awarding the book is purely a bonus point for creativity, as is my custom), but . . . one simply fails to see how the tale and this story could possibly be interlinked believably. The Briar Rose elements seem forced, artificially introduced where they don't belong. Stuff like the barbed wire from the concentration camp standing up for the thornbushes covering the entrance to Sleeping Beauty's castle seem like going too far with a metaphor; stuff like the Prince who awakens Briar Rose from the sleeping curse being forcefully likened to a gay adopted nobleman fighting with the Partisans as well, and so on and so forth. It's as if you painted a collar made of wooden beads to look like genuine pearls. At a distance, it might look like the wooden beads are pearls, but if you get close or touch it, you will see the fakeness. That's exactly what happens here, the parallels between the tale and Gemma's story work only if the readers force themselves to "see" the parallels, and since the blurb already says it's meant as a Sleeping Beauty retelling, then the "Aha, I see it" moments are induced from the exterior and don't come naturally from reading the book. You spot it's Sleeping Beauty because you were told it's Sleeping Beauty.

That it's structured like a mystery for Gemma's youngest granddaughter to solve doesn't help the story, because the characterisation ends up rather unsatisfactory: the story comes to us filtered through other characters, incomplete, sketchy and in the form of flashback to the past that comes from testimony instead of from sending the reader to see the past. Showing the past and giving us Gemma's perspective might've helped, I suspect.
Profile Image for Jolie.
95 reviews67 followers
May 26, 2008
I have always loved fairy tales, and their retellings, ever since I got my hands on a complete collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales. So I was excited to find this retelling of Sleeping Beauty that is, of all things, also a Holocaust story. Becca is the 3rd daughter (third--very important in fairy tales...)of a Jewish family, whose grandmother, known to them as Gemma, has slipped into senility and finally dies. On her deathbed, Gemma makes Becca promise to track down her inheritance--the truth--of the story of her life. Which, she insists, is that she is Briar Rose. All of Becca's childhood memories are tied up with her grandmother's telling of this tale--always the same, and always compelling. And so she begins to track down her grandmother's story--which leads back to an extermination camp in Poland, and a heartbreaking story there.

I was fascinated by Jane Yolen's ability to envision Briar Rose in a Holocaust setting, and I feel haunted by the story she wove. I would hesitate, however, over calling this a Young Adult read--mostly because, in the third section of the book, the themes become very difficult, and often very adult (the man who narrates that portion is in the camps because he is homosexual, so there are several descriptions of his lifestyle that many would be uncomfortable with). It is a book I would have read as a teenager and been okay with, but others may not be.
Profile Image for Beth F.
354 reviews340 followers
May 25, 2009
I never read much Young Adult fiction before joining Goodreads because it never occurred to me that some of it could appeal to an adult reader. But that was then and this is now and while the majority of my book choices are still geared toward an adult audience, I'm certainly more open to YA as a possible source for enjoyment than I ever used to be. I'm glad because this book was a winner.

A lot of YA tends to oversimplify certain things and this was no exception, however, since the intended audience is young readers that isn't a bad thing. The story was instantly addicting, it was a lightning fast read and when I noticed the original copyright was 1992, I wished this book could have appeared in the curriculum of my 8th grade English class during the month we studied the Holocaust (in 1992).

The main character is Becca Berlin, a 23-year-old journalist who has just lost her grandmother, Gemma. Gemma had always been secretive about the past and no one in the family even knew her real name, let alone where she came from or how she came to be in the United States. The only piece of information she had consistently maintained was that she, Gemma, was Briar Rose, the princess of the beloved fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. On her death bed, Gemma asked Becca to discover the truth.

The story that follows is impossible to put down and leads Becca on a 3-week trip to Poland where she discovers the truth about princes and princesses and castles and Holocaust victims and survivors--Jews and non-Jews alike.

If my child is a reader and ever finds him or herself studying the Holocaust during school, I could see myself suggesting this book for further reading. My husband grew up Christian but his grandfather on his dad's side of the family is Jewish and a survivor of a Nazi camp in Germany. So that history is in his/her blood and for young readers, this book is approachable and emotionally touching. I could see this book make history meaningful for young readers.
Profile Image for Chris Horsefield.
110 reviews129 followers
August 6, 2018
Wonderful book for young readers...grades 6-8. A fun story about a young girl who learns about her grandmother's true identity through the content of a box her grandmother leaves her. If you enjoyed The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne , The Edelweiss Express (Edelweiss Pirates #2) by Mark A. Cooper , The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak you will enjoy it. I was going to add Night (The Night Trilogy, #1) by Elie Wiesel to the list and as fantastic and education the 'Night' is, its not really for young Adult. Briar Rose is perfect for the YA format.
Set in the present day with flashbacks to the Holocaust, it is an unforgettable story. Yolen skillfully weaves Gemma's recounting of the Briar Rose story with what really happened and it is heartbreaking and moving. The novel is filled with great characters - Becca, who agrees to find out Gemma's story and pledges to do so no matter what; Stan, her editor who encourages her to do so; Magda, the irrepressible Polish girl who helps Becca; Josef Potoki, who fills in many of the blanks in Gemma's life (his story is one of the most moving parts of the book); and of course Gemma herself as her story unfolds. Also playing a powerful part in the novel is the visit to Chelmno - not only the place itself but the reaction of the people living near there to the visitors. Gemma and Josef's stories are moving in many ways - a reminder of how much people lost during the Holocaust. The discoveries that Becca makes about Gemma and also the ones that she is unable to make are heartbreaking, yet heartwarming.
Profile Image for Cinco.
212 reviews4 followers
July 20, 2007
You can always depend on Jane Yolen for excellent writing, but this is my absolute favorite of hers. She manages to combine the Holocaust, the Sleeping Beauty tale, and a young woman's memories of her grandmother into a really wonderful book. Very highly recommended.
Profile Image for TheBookSmugglers.
669 reviews2,006 followers
February 10, 2012
Originally reviewed on The Book Smugglers

For as long as she can remember, Becca has been enamored, frightened, and captivated by her Grandmother Gemma's favorite story - that of Briar Rose, and the awful sleeping curse placed on her and all her people by the cruel fairy with black boots and emblazoned with silver eagles. As the years pass, while Becca's sisters start their own families and tire of Gemma's Sleeping Beauty story, Becca remains ever faithful and dedicated to her grandmother - even when Gemma's grasp on reality seems to be slipping as she claims that she is Briar Rose. On her deathbed, Gemma makes Becca swear to find Gemma's castle, and the truth behind Gemma's life. With a box of trinkets and a fairy tale as her only clues to her grandmother's past, Becca starts her investigation into Gemma's life. What she finds leads her on the path to a small town in 1940s Poland, to a place where Gemma's fairy tale intertwines with threads of memory and truth.

"Both the oral and the literary forms of the fairy tale are grounded in history: they emanate from specific struggles to humanize bestial and barbaric forces, which have terrorized our minds and communities in concrete ways, threatening to destroy free will and human compassion. The fairy tale sets out to conquer this concrete terror through metaphors.”
- Jack Zipes, Spells of Enchantment

So begins Briar Rose, with this epigraph from Jack Zipes - and how incredibly fitting and haunting this truth is. When I picked up Briar Rose, I was expecting a fairy tale. A fantasy novel. A dark fantasy, to be sure, but something firmly rooted in the soil of speculative fiction. I was not expecting this haunting, heartbreaking tale of memory, family, and the Holocaust, using Sleeping Beauty as a very loose metaphor. Like many young adults, I attended elementary and middle schools that assigned works of historical fiction that examined the brutality and horror of the Holocaust - novels like Lois Lowry's Number the Stars or Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic, or of course the haunting autobiographical The Diary of Anne Frank. As a young reader, it is hard to grasp the enormity, the sheer scale of death and the atrocity of the Holocaust - but books like these help give a tangible perspective of such madness and genocide. They also allow us to contemplate and remember this unconscionably dark chapter of human history.

Jane Yolen's Briar Rose is another such book. It is a book that forces us to confront and to remember, told through the eyes of a 23-year-old that uncovers the hidden past of her beloved grandmother. As Becca strings together the clues left behind by Gemma in the handful of documents, keepsakes, and the fable Gemma never stopped telling, the full picture of Gemma's past comes into focus. It's a past which leads Becca to the small Polish town of Chelmno, a place whose picturesque, quiet serenity belies the atrocities that occurred there.

Briar Rose is a contemplative novel that tells the story not only of Gemma, not only of the Jews taken to the camps - it's also about the Pink Triangle laws and the homosexual males so reviled by the Nazis. It's about the gypsies, the Jehovah's Witnesses, and all the other "undesirables" sent en masse to extermination camps like Chelmno. It's also the contemporary story of Becca, a young woman learning about her grandmother and finding her own voice in the process. While the writing for this book might not be the most refined and is quickly dated (imagine a genealogical search that does not involve the internet, in a time when the Soviet Union was still unified, and when hunting down information leads and passports took weeks, even months, to pursue), it is a powerful and resonant story.

From the onset, Briar Rose has an air of sadness and distance, and learning about Gemma's past and all that she has endured and her fixation with the Briar Rose fairy tale is poignant and heartbreaking in its stark truth: Gemma tells her fairy tale over and over again throughout the novel in a series of flashbacks, because it is her past. Is Briar Rose a fairy tale? It is and it isn't. It is allegory, and it is truth. It is powerful, and it is raw. Even if Gemma may not remember her past, her story is uncovered from the fog that ensorcells the princess and her kingdom, coaxed awake by Becca so many decades later. Though Gemma's tale is one of indescribable horror, it has its own happy ending.
Profile Image for Jeffe Kennedy.
Author 89 books1,252 followers
June 23, 2017
A haunting, beautiful read. Though it's framed in the Sleeping Beauty tale, that's not really what the story is about in the end. But a lovely, exquisitely written book. Heartbreaking and yet hopeful. Recommend!
Profile Image for Natalie.
28 reviews3 followers
January 5, 2008
If you picked up this book thinking it was a fantasy/modern fairytale, you will be disappointed. There is NO fantasy, magic, magical creatures, alternate realities etc in this book. In fact, I almost didn't finish it because it seemed like a pretty standard piece of fluff for over half the book.
I am glad that I did finish it, though. The only reason I did was because I decided to look up some reviews to see what the deal was. I found this book looking for retelling of fairytales/fantasy type books. Think McKinley's Beauty. A few reviewers felt the same way I did about the beginning of the book but said that the culmination was worth hanging in for.
I think the part of the story related by "The Prince" is worth reading but overall, I was really disappointed. Jane Yolen has been recommended to me on numerous occasions. I have to hope that the writing in her other books is better than in the first two-thirds of this one. The Prince's part of the story was a little different take on the events of the holocaust. It brings out how many other groups were persecuted by the Nazis other than the Jews, such as the homosexuals. I found it pretty predictable but still worth reading. I give it three stars and say it is worth reading because it tells of events that people need to know about and think about.
I would also add that this book is on the juvenile shelf in my library and I, personally would not want my under 14 kids to read it without me, if at all. Parents would need to judge for their family when kids are ready to deal with really gruesome depictions of these events as well as with some fairly blatant sexuality, including homosexuality.
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,233 reviews1,046 followers
October 30, 2014
An installment in Terri Windling's "Fairy Tale Series."
This book is not actually a fairy tale or fantasy at all... it deals with a young woman searching for the truth about her grandmother's life. The grandmother had always been loving, but a little bit eccentric, and obsessed with the story of Sleeping Beauty, or Briar Rose. Her granddaughter, Becca, makes her a deathbed promise to 'find the castle,' which she interprets as a request to find out the truth of how the metaphor of Sleeping Beauty applied to her grandmother's life. Her research takes her to Poland, and the site of one of the Nazis' most horrific extermination camps.
Overall, this was a very good book, but I thought Becca's character was both just a little bit too saintly and too innocent.
Her sisters were treated rather harshly for essentially, being normal.
Also, Yolen's portrayal of Poland seemed to me to be a little bit out of date for 1992 - and as someone who loves old Europe, her portrayal of the country seemed somewhat uncharitable.
I preferred the parts of the book that had to do with the events of the 1940s much more - the narrator of that part of the story, Josef, was much more interesting to me.

Note: for anyone looking for a fantasy that weaves in a girl's WWII experiences, I just finished Lisa Goldstein's 'The Red Magician' (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) and would highly recommend it.
8 reviews
May 24, 2010
I am still baffled by the amount of rave reviews Briar Rose received. Admittedly, the story is very unique. The idea of comparing the Holocaust to the Sleeping Beauty fairytale may seem a bit far-fetched initially, yet Yolen manages to bring the truth of this parallel to light. Unfortunately, it was executed in a way that really detracted from what was formally an original idea. Instead we are left with a poorly written, confused, and mediocre young adult novel.

Many of the characters that populate this book are completely unconvincing. Beccah is a shallow protagonist with a boring personality and no flaws to speak of. Magda stuck out to me in particular. She was a nuisance to read with her broken English, and her benign comments seemed to only reinforce the stereotype of the “Stupid Polack.” Stan was a useless plot device (Beccah’s love interest) and should have been further developed or thrown out entirely, as the romance seemed to have no real purpose at all.

There also seems to be an issue in this book with age. Many of the adults act like children. Beccah is so immature I thought her to be 16 or 17 rather than 23. Her sisters were by far the worst though, with their constant bickering and melodramatics, spewing out comments that only a spiteful 10 year old would say. Every time I read their dialogue I would consider putting down the book permanently. Unfortunately this was required reading for a class, so on I read.

I would have much rather seen a novel based on the story Josef tells. The characters were much more human and the action much more real. But even this part of the novel was lacking It wasn’t developed enough to be heart wrenching in the way it had the potential to be. It is not difficult to make stories about the Holocaust sad. However, to make it a truly emotional story, one must pay close attention to the characters and the pacing. Both of these are severely neglected. However, this isn’t just an issue with the telling of Josef’s story. There seems to be something missing throughout the entire book. It desperately needed to be further elaborated on and tied together more neatly.

Overall Briar Rose was a great idea that fell flat due to poor character development, writing, and (what seemed to me) laziness. The amount of complaints I have about this novel are innumerable. The only thing that really keeps me from calling it one of the most disappointing books I have ever read is the idea that underlies it. There is so much untapped potential here it is frustrating. I wish Yolen had taken better advantage of the opportunity she was given.
Profile Image for Wendy.
606 reviews136 followers
February 6, 2014
"Gemma" has told the tale of Briar Rose to her three granddaughters for as long as they can remember, but on her death bed, in a moment of lucidity, Gemma emphatically informs Becca that she actually is Briar Rose. A box full of Gemma's secret possessions leads Becca to unravel the mystery of her grandmother's past in a harrowing holocaust story.

Imaginative re-tellings of fairy tales can be hit or miss for me, but this book really caught my attention with the way it took the story of Sleeping Beauty well beyond its darker roots. Becca's actual journey, which takes her all the way to Poland, has many interesting and endearing moments, but the magic of this book is how Yolen weaves Gemma’s apparent fairy tale into the reality, teasing out the story of Briar Rose bit by bit, until it reaches its bittersweet conclusion.
Profile Image for Leah.
803 reviews42 followers
December 17, 2015
Not since Bitter Greens and Deathless have I read a fairy-tale retelling that truly embraced the power of historical context. I think one of the best types of retellings understands that fairy tales were not written (or read) in a vacuum. Much like horror stories, fairy tales have always explored the tellers' fears and desires, and often subverted mainstream societal norms and constraints. By choosing to blend history (whether real or imagined) with fairy tale, the retelling gains a quasi-realism and authenticity that both enthralls and educates. Maybe even inspires the reader to search out non-fiction based on actual people, places and events.

Having said that, the fairy tale in Yolen's book was not being retold as much as it was being used as the catalyst for a granddaughter's research into her grandmother's history, a past her Gemma never spoke directly about. She would instead tell her three granddaughters the tale of Sleeping Beauty. And at the end of her life, their Gemma began telling them that she was Sleeping Beauty, that it was her story. Of course, most of the family thought her senile, possibly demented. But with her dying breath Gemma begged her youngest (and favorite) granddaughter, Becca, to find "the castle." When Becca promised she would, the quest for Gemma's true story was underway.

Be warned: If you're looking for a story along the same lines as Sleeping Beauty by Jane Yolen or Princess Sonora by Gail Carson Levine, Briar Rose is not the book for you. Yolen went dark, we're talking pitch black, with her retelling of this well-known tale of Sleeping Beauty. What else would a reader expect when the jacket blurb includes the word Holocaust? How could anyone actually expect anything less than brutal and heartbreaking? My advice to anyone looking for fluffy fairy tales: skip this book. However, if you're looking for a mix of historical fiction and fairy tale, or an exploration into how fairy tales and stories (or fiction in general) might be used by someone to cope with tragedy, read this book!

4.5 stars

Profile Image for Audrey.
334 reviews83 followers
August 12, 2015
I wish I had explored more reviews of this book before reading it. I'm usually pretty careful about that, because I don't want to waste my time on a worthless book. Well, this one was totally different than what I expected. I should've been more careful.

First of all, I thought it would take place more in the 1940s than the 1990s. But, okay, that was fine once I got used to it. My main problem was that the worldview of this book is just steeped in the perspective of a secular, depraved, post-modern society. There was a nonchalant reference to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy (brief, but troublingly presented as oh-so-normal and validated). There were also some sexual references and swearing. However, the main thing that I had no idea about when I picked up this book was the homosexual content. The protagonist is friends with an openly lesbian former professor and, later on, there are graphic depictions of the completely promiscuous affairs of another homosexual character. I definitely would not have read this book if I had known about this. (I don't want to turn this review into a debate on homosexuality, but it's not that I hate people with same-sex attraction or believe that they should be persecuted. For more about what I believe on this issue, see this this link).

Objectionable content aside, the method of storytelling with flashbacks often felt repetitive. Everything was quite obvious, and I had most of the clues put together long before the protagonist did (not always the case with me). Another thing I couldn't figure out was, considering all the time she spent with her grandmother before she died, why had Becca never just straight out asked her about her past?

The writing was really odd at times, too. For example, a face was described as looking like "parchment that had been written over and scraped down too many times." Maybe it's just me, but I can't really picture that in regards to a face. Another person was said to have eyebrows like a "demented dove." Huh? Doves have eyebrows? Also, the fact that random people popped up making fairy tale references felt a bit forced. For example, the stranger on the plane telling Becca that, because she hadn't traveled much, she was like Sleeping Beauty. What does not traveling much have to do with that particular fairy tale? I also don't get how Becca hired Magda to just be a 24/7 travel companion. As a further incidental note, there is no attempt made at subtly veiling the author's and characters' political leanings. One character shoots rubber bands at a photo of the first George Bush.

I started by listening to this on audio book, but I didn't love the narrator. I ended up continuing through Chapter 23, and then once I found out about the homosexual content, I basically just skimmed the rest of the book (about 90 pages). I skipped the graphic descriptions and mostly just looked for resolution to Gemma’s story, which was pretty much what I expected--nothing really new or startling.

Overall, the book was a waste of time. I didn’t even learn anything new about World War II or the Holocaust, except that there were extermination camps in addition to concentration camps. This book almost makes me want to give up on all of Yolen’s other books, but I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Profile Image for Muphyn.
594 reviews67 followers
January 2, 2016
Hmm, I first rated this 3 stars, now I'm debatting to downgrad it to 2 stars. The start was good, the ending wasn't too bad but the middle was seriously weak - I was not impressed (and I can't even be bothered to go into all the details).

Just a couple of things...
1) Once Becca got to Poland (and oh, wasn't that all so very easy all of a sudden?), she was just sooo annoying, constantly correcting Magda's English. Interestingly, Magda only seemed to have trouble constructing simple sentences in English, complex ones was quite a different cattle of fish and one she mastered quite beautifully ("She has raised me since my parents are gone (p.119) cf. "I think ... that there is a man who will not let death take him by the hand until he has finished what he has begun." (p.158)).

2) I'd really appreciated a better copyeditor; please do double-check the names of concentration camps mentioned... Sachenhausen is not the name of the labour camp north of Berlin near Oranienburg (not Oranienberg, big difference), it's Sachsenhausen. That really seriously irked me; perhaps because I've been to Sachsenhausen at least a couple of times. But perhaps I should just be happy that Auschwitz and Majdanek were spelled correctly?? I also seriously doubt that Polish Jews spoke Hebrew to one another, I'm pretty sure that would have been Yiddish... never mind.

On the upside, Briar Rose is intriguing. Taking the concept of a fairytale and weaving in a holocaust story was definitely not something I'd read before, especially with the take on homosexuals. ; Poland is an awfully conservative and Catholic country, is it not?

Well, maybe I'll stick with the 3 star rating for now.
Profile Image for Kaora.
585 reviews282 followers
September 24, 2014
Everyone likes a fairy tale story because everyone wants things to come out right in the end. And even though to tell a story is to tell some kind of untruth, one often suspects that what seems to be untruth is really a hidden truth.

Briar Rose is a new take on the classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. Gemma loves telling her grandchildren the story of Sleeping Beauty. However on her death bed she reveals that she is Briar Rose and makes her granddaughter promise her to find the castle, find the prince and find the maker of the spells. Rebecca begins a search into her grandmother's past to discover that some fairy tales have a basis in reality.

I was not overly fond of the writing in this one, but about halfway through the author found her stride and I found myself thoroughly interested in the tale of Briar Rose. I also loved how the author went back and forth between Rebecca in the present day and the past where Gemma told the story. Often I find time jumps disconcerting, but in this case it was very effective.

It is a darker version of the fairy tale, so if you pick it up expecting something like Disney's Sleeping Beauty you will be surprised. There are no witches or curses. It is set during the Holocaust, and while the story follows the same general lines as the fairy tale, some of these events did happen, making it a story that strikes deep.

Cross posted at Kaora's Corner.
Profile Image for Alexandra.
1,309 reviews3 followers
June 13, 2016
Although it's loosely based on Sleeping Beauty it is not itself fairy-tale-like, and is set in modern times. Part of the action takes place in Nazi Germany and the plight of the Jews (the significance of the barbed wire on the cover photo). It's a good story, and although it's not all happy events I did like it very much. It's in my "to re-read" pile.
Profile Image for Kathy.
2,291 reviews35 followers
February 10, 2020
Was not what I expected; a different approach to a fairy tale retelling. I had never heard of Chelmno prior to this book.
Profile Image for Linda Lipko.
1,904 reviews43 followers
September 1, 2009
This book is marvelously crafted and it is one of the best I've read this year. It is a masterpiece of haunting beauty.

Though it was told in a much different rendition than the Disney interpretation, as a child Becca and her three sisters repeatedly heard the story of Briar Rose by their grandmother.

Becca, the youngest sister was enthralled by her grandmother's storytelling abilities. In real life, very little was known of Gemma, other than she insisted she was a princess rescued by a prince who broke through the thorns of the castle wherein all were silent and asleep. The Prince then kissed her and woke her from deep sleep.

On her deathbed Becca's Polish immigrant grandmother pleaded with her to "find the castle."

Discovering fragments of her grandmother's history in a box left behind, Becca undertakes an incredible journey to Poland where she learns of the brutality inflicted on the innocent at an extermination camp that was housed in a schloss (castle.)

Weaving the tale of Briar Rose and the Holocaust, Yolen vividly depicts the horror at Chelmno, Poland where from 1942-1945, 320,000 people were gassed and buried in mass graves.

Fairytales do not always have happy endings. But, while this book covers a terrible tragedy, it is also a tale of courage, of sacrifice and the power of redemption.
Profile Image for Shannon.
1,584 reviews
January 14, 2012
Briar Rose is a re-imagining of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, it wasn't the retelling I was hoping for. I had hoped for either a new and adult take on a fairy tale, or a new look at an old story that I could share with my 10 and 12 year old daughters. This book provided neither. Here's what it did give me: a way to see how fairy tales tell us more about real life than we might imagine.

Briar Rose tells the story of Becca, a 23 year old journalist whose grandmother, Gemma, always claimed to be Sleeping Beauty from the story. After Gemma's death, the family finds a box filled with old pictures, a passport and documents from Gemma's arrival in the US during WWII. Becca sets out to find out the real story of her grandmother.

Becca's questions take her to Poland, where she learns the story behind the fairy tale. As with many stories from this time in our world's history, the fairy tale was easier than Gemma's own story.

I have found that good young adult fiction reads as well - and as deeply - as adult fiction. But some YA fiction (like Briar Rose), tells the story too summarily, crafts the characters out of cardboard rather than flesh and blood and leaves me looking at a book that held a kernel that could have grown into a beautiful novel, but fell a bit short.
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,440 reviews34 followers
February 25, 2017
I expected more from this retelling of Sleeping Beauty, due to the well known author Yolen and the Holocaust twist. The book begins with the impending death of the grandmother Gemma. Upon her passing, documents are found by the family pointing to her immigration from Poland. Gemma had always been silent about her past, and her granddaughter Becca wants to investigate. After researching the clues left, Becca heads to Poland and is led to the former concentration camp of Chelmno. She meets an elderly man Josef who knew her grandmother and he shares the story of how Gemma survived the death gassings, married and became pregnant, and the circumstances that led her to immigrate to America. The story explains much, but not everything, of why her grandmother would tell a unique tale of Sleeping Beauty that fit the narrative of some of the horrors that she endured. While the historical fiction account in the last half of the book was excellent, the beginning of the book dragged. I never felt as if we got to truly know Gemma, much less Becca. This story had some great parts, but as a whole, I was dissatisfied.

Profile Image for Andy.
2,527 reviews208 followers
May 14, 2020
This was a very strange mix of Sleeping Beauty retelling and a Holocaust survival story. Becca has always been fascinated about the fairytale story of Briar Rose her grandmother tells. When her grandmother is dying, Becca promises to follow her story home and this journey takes her to Poland to uncover a story of brutality, horror, hope and redemption.

I was interested by this story for the most part, but at times it failed to catch my interest. I liked Becca as a protagonist and how she went through the clues Gemma left for her in the chest. The story of Briar Rose was haunting and enchanting, but the reality was much more grim.

As soon as Becca made it to Poland I was fascinated. I am roughly 50% Polish from my mother's side and I'd love to go to Poland one day. I loved the descriptions and experiences of Magda taking Becca to different places. It gave me some serious wanderlust.

The ending to this was a bit more grim than I was expecting, but it made a haunting kind of sense. I wish there had been some more fantasy/fairytale elements to it at the end, but I also understand how the story of Briar Rose came to be. Overall, interesting.
Profile Image for bird.
125 reviews29 followers
June 6, 2022
im sorry jane yolen for the low reviews but all the modern parts of this felt phoned the hell in, becca was a drip, and i don’t see why there was no consideration of who precisely gemma was when her dialogue was not the text of sleeping beauty. like a mystery is not enough i want a real old woman
Profile Image for Jalilah.
378 reviews92 followers
January 12, 2018
3 1/2 Stars. This is certainly is a very powerful novel. I am happy to have I read it, but I have mixed feelings. On one hand I applaud Yolen for addressing a horrendous subject matter and for using the fairytale Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty to tell a story about the Holocaust. This was very well done!
Unfortunately there were many smaller details that were irksome and they prevented me from fully enjoying and appreciating the novel as I would have liked to.
Becca the main character is raised on a special version of the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty tale that her mysterious grandmother tells her. After her grandmother's death Becca suspects her grandmother was a WW2 refugee and Holocaust survivor. In order to find out more information she travels to Poland. I have read that Polish readers say there are a lot of inaccuracies. This is disappointing! I feel strongly that if authors are going to write about a culture that is not their own they have to research properly. Furthermore Becca arrives in Poland not speaking a word of Polish and the first thing she does when she arrives is correct her guides English! So rude and condescending!
If it were not for these things I would have rated this novel higher. In spite of its flaws I still highly recommend it. Written in the 90s it's definitely still relevant today!
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