This is a powerful book, but I wouldn't recommend it to most, even if they love the Grimm brothers' work.
The tale focuses on Jacob Grimm's last days, noting his ill health that include a heart attack and a stroke. Many of the people he meets while traveling with his niece know Jacob for his work gathering fairytales, but most people don't know the other side of his life, which was greatly affected by the changes in government/rulers of his "fatherland" over the years. Most of his energy was spent caring for his family at the expense of a personal life. He did, however, take a stand against political leaders at one point, which pushed him into exile far from his family.
I had a lot of tears during the last third of the book. There's the sense that Jacob was under-appreciated in his life and in history, that his passions for words and history and country were undervalued (mostly because passion can't always pay the bills). [Spoiler coming up!] After Jacob's stroke near the end of the book, he can't move the right side of his body, cannot speak, and can write very little with his left hand. It's noted that this would drive a writer crazy - being deprived of his passion for writing, not having that outlet. As a writer (for myself), this thought terrifies me. As the daughter of a stroke patient, this saddened me more than I already am, regarding my mother's health. In the end, Jacob is said to cope by just dwelling in the dream-world in his mind, almost a relief perhaps that he is no longer required to write it all out, and lives through his "last fairytale". [Spoilers done now.]
In conclusion, this is not a tale for someone looking for more of what the Grimm brothers collected. This piece of historical fiction is more likely to make a reader examine and appreciate their lives and influence on the world. This is not an escape from reality like most books. It's an example of how imagination will loop back to real life, how one cannot exist without the other, how we have to awaken from our dreams first in order to return to them again later. It's a serious read, but it's worth it for its context in history and the importance of these tales, on the Grimms and on the world.
Three interwoven stories.
The main plot deals with the folklorist Jacob Grimm, nearing the end of his life and in failing health. He is cared for by his niece, Auguste, and a servingman, Kummel. The relationships between all three are fraught with tension and secrets.
In flashback-style, we also learn about the young Jacob and his (rather unhealthy, interdependent) relationship with his younger brother, Willi.
Interspersed with these two segments is a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty, mixed with elements of other fairytales and some entirely new additions.
By an Oxford grad, the book is surely not without literary merit, but I wished that the story had focused less on Augustes angst and more on the historical details of the Grimms lives and work. I had hoped to come away from reading this book feeling that I knew much more about the brothers but I didnt.
I liked the fairytale segment, but its function seemed, to me, to mostly be illustrative to show an unsanitized version of an old story. The issues brought up thematically in that section, I felt, should have related back to the story going on in the other segments but they really didnt.
I also couldnt help feeling that Middleton wasnt really inside the heads of his characters. A sense of time and place (Germany, 19th century) was established by throwing in stuff like gratuitous references to schnitzels rather than through the characters. And finally, I found Middletons indirectly-implied thesis that German fairytales are somehow related to Nazism to be annoying and offensive (he makes a comment about how the German versions of fairytales were distinctly nastier than, say, the French versions which I think is definitely arguable and probably untrue.) The author also uses Grimms belief in folklore being an important part of our heritage to imply that the nastiness of the stories says something about the German people as a whole. The character of Kummel, who is entirely fictional, is included merely to give the author a chance to bring up anti-Semitism, and I found it totally irrelevant to bring up, in the afterword, that Hitler used versions of Grimms book to promote the German folk community.
The Grimms were not anti-Semites, they died well before the rise of Nazism, and I dont believe that fairytales have any culpability for or connection to fascism in any form.
This theme is not by any means the largest part of the book, I think its just something that Im personally sensitive to.
This is a very interesting fictional biography of the Grimm brothers and also a twist on the "Sleeping Beauty" story.
It was okay, not a super thrilling page turner, but interesting enough to finish.