HEA Hypothesis: Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray

Hey, book buddy! Good to see you here on my blog. This post is part of a series called HEA Hypothesis, in which I try to dissect and analyze why different scenes in romance novels work well. I was an English major once upon a time, so bear with me as I blow the dust off my skills here. Maybe it’ll even improve my craft? One can only hope.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Our first scene comes from Briarley by Aster Glenn Gray, a Beauty and the Beast retelling set during World War II, which was recommended to me by Helen Kord (@mirabel_chan) on Twitter. She’s also a talented artist, so check out her work! The context is that the parson (part of our couple) has, due to a rainstorm, just visited a very fine mansion, which appeared to be empty. Yet finding the table set and the fires burning with no one at home creeped him out, so he’s decided to head out without eating.

The mist rose high and thick, so that the front wheel seemed to disappear into the fog. The parson felt uneasy as he looked at it, and uneasier still when his gaze fell further and he saw that he could not see his own booted feet in that mist. He looked hastily away. And that was his undoing: for his gaze fell upon the roses again (Chapter Two, Location 138, Gray).

Though we’re familiar with the original story, it’s hard to believe that the author is setting up the meeting of two people (creatures?) who are about to fall in love. Disoriented and afraid, all the parson can see is that he can’t see anything…given that the first level of intimacy is usually checking out the other person’s body, this doesn’t exactly bode well.

It seemed a great pity not to fulfill his promise to his daughter, when there were so many roses here and no one to miss them. The parson propped up his bicycle on the gravel lane, and stole across the grass to the rose hedges lining the drive. The moonlight only enriched their velvet colors. Even in the silvery light the petals glowed wine-red. The parson cupped one red rose in his hand: a flower as vast as a peony, its petals soft as a baby’s skin. His penknife was dull, and it took him some few minutes to saw through the thick thorny stem. His thumb caught and tore on one of the wicked thorns, dripping red blood onto the green grass below.

The author seems to be taking care to show us just how exactly opposite these two are. The adjectives of the dragon’s garden are dripping with wealth symbolism: silvery, velvet, wine, abundance, vastness, softness. Let’s look then at the adjectives surrounding the parson: he steals and props up, sawing like a common laborer rather than snipping or cutting with efficiency due to the dullness of his knife; even his thumb is getting caught like the thief he’s about to be pronounced. Could these two be any more different?

But at last the knife won through. The stem had been sliced jagged, but the rose remained unblemished. The parson lifted it to his nose and took a sniff, and frowned. It did not smell as sweet as he thought it should. But nonetheless he put it tenderly in his buttonhole, and patted it, and turned back toward the path, where the mist shrouded his bicycle. Only one handlebar rose visible above the thick white gauze of fog.

Here’s our poor parson, so poor that he doesn’t even get the victory of winning the rose: the author gives it to the knife instead. What a lovely example of showing instead of telling here: despite the meet disaster that’s about to happen, we’ve just learned that the parson is not easily deterred from what he wants and tolerates imperfection well, with compassion, even. The author gives us just enough hope to get us through the chapter without despairing for these two, and it starts here with revealing his character so beautifully when faced with subverted expectations.

But the moment the parson set foot on the path, the iron gates swung shut. They crashed together with a terrible clang, and the parson stood frozen in surprise and creeping horror. One did not steal the fairies’ flowers either, it seemed. One should not bleed on fairy ground. “Thief!” a great voice roared, and the parson whipped around, looking for the source of it. “Thief! Thief! Thief!” And the parson was covered in shame. Could he have stolen a flower, like a schoolboy scrumping apples? ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I wanted it for my daughter; and your roses are so perfect, I did not stop to think…’

Our parson, faced with his sin, gives us a few truths: he’s sorry (though perhaps only because he was caught?), it was for someone else (true certainly), your roses are perfect (a little cloying, but okay)…but then he does something unexpected: he lies. “I did not stop to think,” he says, even though he overcomes several barriers (the dull knife, the thick mist, an injury to his flesh) in order to succeed at his task, all of which had given him the opportunity to re-evaluate his decision.

Since I have a deep, undying love for beautifully complex, flawed characters, I have a feeling that Ms. Gray and I will get along just fine as I continue to read. If this has piqued your interest, you can get the book in Kindle Unlimited or on Amazon. These are affiliate links, so I’ll get a small kickback if you order them. Very small.

Do you agree with my analysis? Got more to add? Jump into the comments or at me on Twitter and let’s keep the conversation going!

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