The Cottage in the Woods by Katherine Coville. Knopf,2015. 389 pages
Bottom Line: This clever fairy tale/Jane Austen mashup retells the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears from the point of view of an ursine governess.
Ursula Brown, an unassuming young bear of good family, has just been engaged as governess by Mr. Vaughn, a school friend of her father’s. Teddy, the little cub she is to teach, is bright and affectionate, his parents are upright and good, the cottage is delightful and it’s shaping up as an ideal situation—except for Nurse. Toward the family, the old badger is the very model of a loyal retainer. But to Ursula, Nurse shows a vindictive, even vicious side. Which side is true? Perhaps she even loved Teddy in her way, and, like the sparrow hawk, simply couldn’t help her own predatory impulses, but I found I couldn’t exonerate her that easily. Everyone has their animal nature to overcome, after all. Also, within the first week of her employment, Ursula senses an alien presence in the house—sometimes in her own room!
Fairy-tale mashups on the order of Shrek and A Hero’s Guide to Saving the Kingdom, have been around for a while. Most of them tend to be comic (for middle grades) or edgy and “relevant” (for YA’s). The Cottage in the Woods goes one better by stirring in elements of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park in a first-person narrative salted with vocabulary words like refulgent, recalcitrant, mercurial, and concatenation. Christian readers will appreciate the religious angle and deep respect given to old values. A rich plot combines romance, villainy, pathos, danger, and social issues like bigotry. For all that, the story drags at times and Ursula’s narrative voice is so proper it keeps the reader at arm’s length (paw’s length?). Still, she and other characters exhibit the beauty and courage of virtue and the challenge of true love. As her Papa tells her, “Love is not for the fainthearted.” Too long for some, too formal for others—but for the target group of readers this novel will be “just right.”
Overall rating: 4 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 5
- Artistic value: 4
Categories: Young Adult, Fairy and Folk Tales, Life Issues