Becca's grandmother, called Gemma for the way her oldest granddaughter pronounced "grandma", has spent all the years Becca's known her telling the story of Sleeping Beauty, in a beautiful, peculiar, haunting way that Becca loves and rememembers word for word. But when Gemma dies, leaving behind a box of clippings, photographs, and trinkets, Becca realizes that no one really knew Gemma--they know she's Jewish, think she's Polish, but not even Gemma's daughter knowns where she lived, how she came to the United States, or even her real name. And Gemma insisted that she was Briar Rose, that she was the princess--on her deathbed, but even before then, before age took away her sense.
Becca's quest to uncover her grandmothers past takes her first to upstate New York, to a camp for European refugees during World War II, and then to Poland, where Becca finds the answers, and the fairy tale.
I picked up this book because of one sentence from one review, which wasn't even a review for this book and which wasn't even referencing this book. It was "Because I always knew Hansel and Gretel was a holocaust story", written as the subject line for a review of Kindergarten by Peter Rushforth. But that review did mention Briar Rose as one of two books about the holocaust that had stayed in the head of the reviewer (the other being The Diary of Anne Frank), and I thought...I can see Hansel and Gretel as a holocaust story, absolutely. But Sleeping Beauty? And that I had to read.
And it was amazing. Haunting and horrible and beautiful, just like I wanted it to be, but better because it was so very unexpected. I expected fairies in my fairy tale (and ha ha, Jane Yolen, I guess there were a few), some magic. This was better for lacking it.