Review: Poisoned

I saw an ad on Facebook for Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly and thought "Cool. A retelling of 'Snow White.'" Little did I know that this book would be one of the darkest and unpleasant retellings about the fairest one of all that I've ever read. The book has nothing in it that would be considered inappropriate for children, but it has the same level of storytelling as the 2012 film Snow White and the Huntsman. If you enjoyed that movie, you might like this book. However, I was not a fan of either. So much of Poisoned tries to incorporate Tim Burton-esque imagery that I wasn't sure if Jennifer Donnelly was aware that she was writing a book and not a screenplay. Films are meant to tantalize their audiences with stunning visuals and sounds while books must allow us to connect with the characters on an emotional level by revealing their internal monologues. A good film or book would succeed in both. This succeeds in neither.

Poisoned by Jennifer Donnelly

Poisoned is written mostly in the third person narrative, which works to its detriment. The lack of emotional attachment I felt to the protagonist, Sophie, made me wish I had a clearer idea of what was going on in her head. What is even more bizarre is that a small selection of chapters are written in the first-person perspective of the Huntsman. This would have been fine if the story was about him, but he played virtually no role in Sophie's tale outside of attempting to kill her one time just as he did in the original fairy tale. The difference is that in this version, he succeeds in cutting out her heart, a gruesome image that made me feel uncomfortable for the remainder of the book. If this story had taken place a normal world, Sophie would have been dead, and that would have been the end of the book. However, Jennifer Donnelly channels her inner Tim Buron by having Sophie encounter seven brothers who live in the woods and make her a clockwork heart that somehow brings her back to life even though her body had been missing its heart the entire time they worked on the prosthetic. For the rest of the book, she wanders the world with a gruesome scar on her chest and ticking gears underneath it.

I could have seen past the macabre imagery if it had been balanced out with an emotional plot, but all of the characters in this story are one-dimensional. At the beginning of the book, Sophie meets a prince named Hans Haakon who is so obviously evil that he might as well have been wearing a flashing neon sign on his head saying "Don't Trust Me." It felt like a chore to go through so many chapters before reaching the betrayal that anyone could see coming from a mile away. I also knew who Sophie's "real" love interest was the moment he showed up even though the author was trying to make the romance a surprise. The seven brothers who were inspired by the seven dwarfs had no real personalities outside of their professions, and it felt like Sophie had no time to form a bond with them even though they grew to love her just as much as the dwarfs from any other adaptation of "Snow White." There was also a new character who made his way through life by robbing corpses. Lovely. Amongst all the gothic and gruesome imagery, I did appreciate that the author incorporated all three methods that Snow White's stepmother used to try to kill her since most versions leave out everything except the apple.

The book gets even more weirdly existential when we learn that the true villain was not Sophie's stepmother, but instead a mysterious figure who turns out to be the personification of Fear. I rolled my eyes so hard at this. The author struggled so much with how to create an emotional connection to her characters that she decided to turn actual emotions into characters, a technique that only worked in Inside Out. I'm sure the imagery and symbolism presented in Poisoned would have looked lovely in a movie, but this is a book, so we need to feel it, not see it. The only thing that I ever felt for Sophie was pity for having to wander around with a bunch of mechanical gears in her chest. I also felt sorry that she trusted someone who was obviously no good. When she finally did meet her love interest, it came so late in the book that I was beyond the point of caring. Their romance felt forced and only seemed to be there to teach Sophie that it was her job as the future queen to reverse the people's negative perceptions about her kingdom's royals.

Overall, Poisoned is a hot mess of a "Snow White" retelling. It wants to be a deep and existential movie, but its characters are shallow and in some cases, literally heartless. Jennifer Donnelly would be better suited to writing a script for a Tim Burton movie than a novel. The macabre imagery in the book made me reluctant to finish it, and the "plot twists" were so obvious that it felt like a waste of time. The only positive thing I have to say about it is that she succeeded in making it even darker than the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Next time I see an ad on Facebook for a book that I know nothing about, I'll think twice before purchasing it.


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