Book Review: Bluebeard’s Castle by Anna Biller – Prisoner of Toxic Masculinity
Written by Paige Alloy
Bluebeard’s Castle It is a sexy yet subversive romance novel steeped in Gothic imagery.
Bluebeard’s Castle by Anna Biller. Verses, 384 pages
Old horror movie by Anna Biller Love witch It took the independent film scene by storm in 2016 with its dark satirical themes, artistic production design, and gorgeous 35mm cinematography. Beller’s tale of a “modern” woman (the film has a 1970s look and feel but is set in the present) who discovers magic as a means of healing and empowering herself after painful relationships with men is the feminist juggernaut that has upended many social movements. (including pop psychology, new age thinking, wicca, and second wave feminism) on their heads.
In her novel Bluebeard’s Castle, Beller continues to intertwine sociopolitical themes and satirical horror tropes, in this case crafting a provocative yet subversive romance novel steeped in Gothic imagery. In other words, this is another cold parody (eg Love witch) which imparts sharp social commentary on various genres and institutions of popular culture. Targets include fairy tales, romance novels, self-help books, old Hollywood glamor, gothic ghost stories, and the general public’s growing awareness of narcissistic personality disorder. Indeed, on some level this novel feels as if it was tailor-made for those who have experienced a traumatic relationship with a toxic narcissist and lived to tell the tale. It may also serve as a cautionary tale for those who may not be aware of the signs of toxic narcissism.
Naturally, if getting the message across was the book’s sole purpose, critics would accuse Beller of being too preachy, too serious, or too smart-talking. Luckily, Bluebeard’s Castle It transcends such pitfalls: it’s an entertaining romp that’s hard to put down, mostly due to the writer’s outrageous style of storytelling; This yarn is, in turn, richly descriptive (almost cinematic) in its images, as well as suspenseful, playful and often surprising.
The novel’s heroine, Judith Moore, is a successful romance novelist living in London. The narrative begins with an introductory scene showing one of Judith’s characters, plump, slender, and beautiful, escaping from a towering castle wearing a form-fitting sheer dress. Then we meet Judith, who is about to end her dull, incomplete relationship with her boyfriend Tony (a kind, attractive doctor who seems perfect in every way). We know that our heroine, the writer, suffers from problems resulting from her mother’s rejection of her, who preferred her beautiful younger sister, Anne, a well-known model.
Judith attends a birthday party at a large country mansion, and meets Gavin, a handsome and charismatic man, heir to a fortune and a prestigious title, who immediately tries to seduce her. Gavin sweeps Judith off her feet and they fall madly in love. She takes particular pleasure in being constantly told that she is prettier than her sister: a standard trope in fairy tales. Judith’s motivations and behavior are also woven with familiar psychological concepts: she has a constant internal dialogue, often second-guessing her decisions and actions, especially in relation to Gavin.
Despite the fact that they barely know each other, the couple does not break up immediately. After quick trips back to London to settle some business, they embark on a lavish month-long “honeymoon” in Paris before their wedding. Gavin seems to be very wealthy. He blatantly spends money and Judith is overwhelmed by his taste and generosity. He surprised her by purchasing a huge castle, complete with gardens, churchyard, and chapel. After completing renovations on the building and adding lavish furnishings, he brought her there to live. Beller’s lush, detailed descriptions of clothing, food, and decor are consistent with her goal of sending up the romantic literary genre. At times, the descriptive scenes feel like excerpts from an extravagant screenplay (with occasional errors, such as the presence of gardens blooming with daffodils in the fall).
Judith falls in love with the castle and begins to enjoy her new fairytale lifestyle, riding horses, exploring the gardens, and waiting on her servants. But little by little, red flags appear. Judith is reprimanded for exploring the castle, and Gavin, in a nod to the story of Bluebeard, forbids her from entering a certain room. Gavin flirts with the beautiful young maid. His fragile financial situation conflicts with his luxurious lifestyle. Then a mysterious woman appears claiming to be his ex-wife. When Judith asks Gavin about these things, his response is often defensive or angry. One night, Judith, frightened by his violence, realized that she had to stay away from him. But her obsessive devotion to Gavin weakens her resolve to escape. This lack of conviction upsets the people she calls upon to help her.
Some readers may find Judith’s inability to escape her husband’s clutches a character flaw, but Beller clearly depicts the relationship for what it is: an intelligent but unpredictable woman who falls deeply in love with a malignant narcissist. Gavin gaslights Judith to the point that she begins to doubt her grip on reality. The narrative takes extreme comedic directions (in keeping with the style of a romance novel), but the situation is very real. Despite the fantasy setting, Judith’s imprisoned plight is depressingly familiar, which gives this satire its impact. Bluebeard’s Castle It blends many artistic forms and influences together into a fascinating mixture of romantic and quasi-feminist archetypes, and emblems of empowerment that are distorted, and ultimately crushed, by the demons of pervasive and relentless toxic masculinity.
Alloy pegs He is a former film critic for Boston Phoenix He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. She has taught film studies in Boston for more than a decade. She writes on film, television and culture for web publications such as time, Deputy, ribbed, hustle, microphone, Orlando WeeklyAnd Bloody disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found in the substack.