Tapestry: A Lowcountry Rapunzel
Onalex Books (2022)
Reviewed by Megan Weiss for Reader Views (06/2022)
Sophia Alexander’s “Tapestry: A Lowcountry Rapunzel” is a coming-of-age tale set in the rural South during the 1920s. The book chronicles the happenings and trials of the Bell family, comprising Clayton—the father; Jessie—the cunning, manipulative step-mother; and Vivian and Gaynelle—sisters adored by their father, but perceived as the thorns in Jessie’s side. After years of trying and failing to have her own child and provide Clayton with a son, she harbors growing resentment toward her step-daughters, and borderline hatred for their late mother, Caroline, Clayton’s first love. Vivian, deemed the “pretty” one, battles a mysterious illness that keeps her largely confined to the house and under Jessie’s care, but is it truly an illness of natural cause, or is it the result of an attempt by Jessie to jeopardize the girl’s health? Meanwhile, Gaynelle, the younger, plainer girl, is not immune to the obvious resentment of her stepmother, and is usually more likely to bring out Jessie’s anger or vicious words. As they struggle to figure out what’s making Vivian ill, and Gaynelle falls in love with one of her father’s farmhands, they will have to continue to be wary of their stepmother and her fiery, unpredictable temple. “Tapestry: A Lowcountry Rapunzel” is a tale filled with the heartbreak of separated loved ones, the anxiety of growing up in a changing social and material world, altogether while battling demons inside their own home.
Alexander’s “Tapestry” is a unique imagining of the classic Rapunzel trope. Jessie, as the evil stepmother, fills her role beautifully. While clearly a villain from the outset of the story, as a reader, you have to appreciate the strength of her character. Jessie cannot be said to be warmhearted or nurturing, but she is strong in her desires and convictions, and once she sets her mind to something, she is determined to see it through. The lengths she will go to accomplish her own goals, even at the expense of those around her (namely her stepdaughters), is both disturbing and shockingly clever. (All that’s missing is her breaking out into song declaring “Mother Knows Best!”)
I thought Vivian’s and Gaynelle’s sisterhood in “Tapestry” was beautifully chronicled. While clearly, they have their differences in temperament, appearance and interests, the bond they share is strong and stalwart. Though separated for some time after Clayton finally sends Vivian to live in town with the Doctor (who is actually her birth father), their relationship never suffers at heart. After the teenaged Gaynelle endures heartbreak and a surprise, terrifying and lonely pregnancy, she is sent to live in town with a family friend—their Aunt Anne, their late mother’s best friend. Now geographically united, Vivian immediately drops everything and rushes to her sister’s side when she falls seriously ill, and takes Gaynelle under her wing to teach her the best things about becoming a woman, and how to navigate a world where women are becoming more independent and impactful spheres that used to be reserved for men, such as college education and the occupational world.
The biggest drawback for me while reading “Tapestry” was that it was slightly slow to get going. The first hundred pages or so felt slightly sluggish, and I kept waiting for something big to happen or for that inevitable shift in the story that really sets the overall plot, and eventual climax, into motion. Finally, we did get there once Clayton puts his foot down and decides to remove Vivian from the home, and from then on, the pacing of the book really improved. There were also just some terminology choices or dialogue choices that did not seem like they really fit the time period the story was set in—but nothing that really disrupted the tone or flow of the story.
Overall, “Tapestry” is a coming-of-age story that would be well enjoyed by readers who appreciate new takes on classic folktales or fairy tales; women’s fiction and even a young adult audience. I would say it probably is not recommended for readers younger than about 13 or 14 just because of some language and scenes that might be disturbing to a younger reader. I can see a lot of young women and teenage girls enjoying the book, however, as the characters of Vivian and Gaynelle especially give those audience members tangible elements through which they can identify bits of themselves in. After all, books are even more powerful when you can understand the struggles or adolescent angst of such characters on a personal level!