Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Review: Beauty by Robin McKinley
By: Robin McKinley
About the book:
Sixteen-year-old Beauty has never liked her nickname. Thin, awkward, and undersized, with big hands and huge feet, she has always thought of herself as the plainest girl in her family -- certainly not nearly as lovely as her elder sisters, Hope and Grace. But what she lacks in looks, she makes up for in courage. When her father comes home one day with the strange tale of an enchanted castle in the wood and the terrible promise he has made to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows what she must do. She must go to the castle and tame the Beast -- if such a thing is possible...
Here is the unusual love story of a most unlikely couple: Beauty...and the Beast.
Everyone knows the story of Beauty and the Beast, right? A beautiful girl agrees to live as an unspeakable monster's prisoner in order to save her father's life -- and an unlikely friendship blossoms into a transformative romance. For her first novel, Robin McKinley took as her basis the traditional French fairy tale and breathed fresh life into the bones of the familiar story. In McKinley's hands Beauty's adventures are transformed into a gorgeously rendered coming-of-age tale, anointing the familiar story beats with a depth and emotional resonance that have made Beauty a modern-day classic.
The youngest of three daughters of a prosperous merchant, Beauty was christened Honour at her birth, and dissatisfied with that moniker, she adopted the name of Beauty -- and the childish joke stuck. Beauty, you see, is convinced that she's anything but -- a drab sparrow when compared to the ethereal beauty of her older sisters. She takes great satisfaction in being the brains of the family, immersing herself in her studies, enjoying an idyllic, privileged life until her father's sudden reversal of fortunes sends the family reeling. Relocating to a humble cottage on the edge of a mysterious forest where all is not as it seems, and the competent Beauty leads her family in adapting to their new surroundings -- until her father crosses a Beast, leaving Beauty with no choice but to sacrifice her freedom for her father's life. Ensconced in the Beast's castle, Beauty grows to flourish with the Beast's companionship. But unable to shake the pull of her former life, Beauty must decide if she possesses enough faith in herself to follow her heart and change the course of her life forever.
I adore fairy tales and retellings in all forms, from novels and short stories to films. Somehow I missed discovering the treasure that is McKinley's Beauty until my Children's Lit classes in college -- but the genius of McKinley's retelling lies in its timelessness and ability to speak to the reader no matter their age. Beauty is a relatively straightforward retelling, retaining the traditional tale's essence and expanding the character of Beauty into a confident, perspicacious teen on the cusp of womanhood, able to see everything in the world except herself with remarkable clarity. Beauty's relationship with the Beast grows at an achingly slow burn, their affection and trust blossoming like one of the castle's enchanted roses. McKinley's sparkling, lyrical prose spins a seductive web, and Beauty's journey to love her courtly Beast and in turn accept the gift of his adoration of and faith in her transforms the fairy tale into a wholly immersive, unforgettable reading experience. McKinley would go on to take greater risks in future fairy tale re-imaginings (i.e., Rose Daughter and Spindle's End), but Beauty, her first, holds a special place in my heart for its elegant simplicity and lilting, musical prose.
*Here's the link to my out-of-print edition (the "vintage" 1990s cover holds a special place in my heart). :)