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Feeding on fairy tales in ‘How to Be Eaten’

Maria Adelmann’s debut novel centers around five women with traumatic — and familiar — pasts

David/David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Maria Adelmann grew up on fairy tales and other stories. “I thought about this — do I remember the first time I read ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ or ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ and I don’t,” she said. “That’s sort of the amazing thing about them. They stay with us culturally, and that’s why I think they’re so interesting to delve into.”

How to Be Eaten” (Little Brown) is Adelmann’s debut novel (she also has a story collection), and it features five women brought together to work through their traumatic pasts; each of their stories derives from some of our most-told tales. “I wrote these little flash fiction pieces about how the characters were affected by the ends of their stories,” said Adelmann. “What I was interested in was the aftermath of the trauma of the fairy tale.”


Much of what comes after has to do with fame, or infamy. The women share the fact that their lives have been “commodified by other people, exploited by the media or reality TV,” Adelmann added.

She researched the tales “How to Be Eaten” retells, all of which have been told in dozens of different versions. “Fairy tales always take on the flavor of their time and their culture, and that’s what’s so cool about them,” she said. “They reflect the cultural mores and anxieties. Bringing them into modern time is just keeping up with that tradition of what fairy tales do.”

In following a modern-day Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, Adelmann hoped to get at a certain kind of feminist narrative — “it’s really about how people react to real issues facing women in modern society” — one that blends fear and laughter. “That’s my personality coming through. I always find humor in the darkness,” Adelmann said.

“One thing I really didn’t want to do was sit down and retell a fairy tale with a very specific moral,” she added. “Real life is more complicated than that.”


Maria Adelmann will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 2, with Kate Bernheimer, in a virtual event hosted by Belmont Books.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.