Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty & the Beast (book) by Robin McKinley

(There's no cover art for this one because I read a library copy that had had its jacket removed.)

When I was in my teens, the YA section of my public library was, for the most part, geared towards middle school students. I left that area for the adult fiction section as soon as my parents would allow, but that didn't mean it didn't have any books worth reading. This book was one of those books. I think this is the first book by Robin McKinley I ever read. I loved it, except for one thing - the Beast turning back into a man at the end. I didn't like that when it happened in the Disney version, and I didn't like it in this book (although I much prefer McKinley's man to Disney's).

I've been trying to reread some of the books I loved when I was younger. Whether my love for a book is renewed or I find that I now hate it, it's always an interesting experience. I'm often amazed at the amount of stuff that apparently when over my head when I was younger. Also, there's the things that I think I probably noticed, but didn't care about as much when I was younger. This book didn't give me quite as many personal revelations as some others have, but I did enjoy rereading it.

Synopsis:

Beauty (whose name is really Honour, although she's hardly ever called that) is the youngest of three daughters. Her sisters Grace and Hope grow up to be far more beautiful than she, but it's hard for her to hold it against them when they are also so kind. Her father is a well-to-do merchant who loves all three of them. While it looks likely that Grace and Hope will soon be marrying men they love, Beauty would like one day to attend a university, despite the slim likelihood that a woman would be able to do such a thing.

The family's happy life is interrupted when their business takes a sudden and complete turn for the worse. The man Grace had hoped to marry is presumed dead at sea, and the family finds itself nearly penniless. Everyone moves to a house in the country with Ger, the man Hope is to marry, and does their best to adjust to their new circumstances. Life becomes mostly happy, until one day their father has a terrible story to tell them all. He had been coming back from the city after sorting a few things out there, and he got lost in the woods. He came across a castle that seemed to invite him to rest and recuperate, so he did. Unfortunately, on his way out the next day, he remembered Beauty's request for some rose seeds. He had not been able to get any in the city, so he plucked a rose from the gardens at the castle. At that point, an enraged Beast told him that, as payment, in one month he must either give his life or bring one of his daughters to live at the castle. Furthermore, the daughter must come of her own free will.

Beauty immediately volunteers to go, since she figures she'd be the least missed, since she's not particularly pretty. Also, had she not asked for the seeds (a request she had thought more easily granted than her sisters' jesting requests for jewels and strings of pearls), her father might not be in this situation. At her family's urging, she takes her beautiful and gentle horse, Greatheart, with her.

The castle is a magical place. Invisible servants see to Beauty's every need and want (except her desire to go home and see her family) and dress her in beautiful clothes, sometimes more beautiful than she feels fitting for one of her plain looks. She is able to go on rides every day and read as much as she wants. There's a library containing more books than she's ever dreamed of - it not only contains works currently in existence, but also works that have yet to be written. All of this isn't quite enough to make up for not getting to see her family, but it does make her situation a bit more bearable.

At first, the Beast frightens her, even though he assures her that he will not hurt her. Eventually, she comes to like his company, taking meals with him, talking to him, reading with him, and walking the castle grounds together with him and Greatheart. The one thing she cannot bear is his nightly request that she marry him. As she grows to know him better, it saddens her that she can't say yes.

One day she finds out that the Beast has not only been sending her father dreams that let him know she's all right, he can also see how her family is doing. He reluctantly agrees to let her see them, and she learns that Grace's fiance, who was supposed to have died at sea, is still alive. Anxious to tell her this news before Grace agrees to marry someone else, Beauty receives the Beast's permission to go back to her family. However, she only has one week. If she's not back before then, the Beast will die. Beauty loves seeing her family again, and Grace is thrilled at the news Beauty brings her. However, Beauty's family doesn't really understand why Beauty actually wants to go back to the Beast. They keep her with them for as long as possible, and Beauty goes back to the castle almost too late. The Beast is almost dead when she finds him, but he revives. Beauty tells him that she loves him and would like to marry him, at which point his enchantment is broken and he turns back into the handsome man Beauty had seen in a tapestry in the castle, albeit 20 or so years older. Beauty is a bit dismayed, because she doesn't believe herself to be beautiful enough for such a man (he proves her wrong with a mirror), but she gets over it. The book ends with the two of them happy and soon to be married.

Commentary:

I don't really understand why the Beast was turned into a Beast in the first place. That wasn't very clear, since there weren't really any bad guys in this book. The Beast was a great guy, and there was no real villain. The goodness of everyone may bother some people, since it's almost sickening. McKinley later wrote another version of the Beauty and the Beast story, and I think that in that version the Beast before he became a beast wasn't quite such a wonderful guy. Although I think some details of the later version were better thought out, I still remember preferring this version, if only because the romance is a bit more prominent. True, it's not until a third of the way into the book that you even get to see the castle and the Beast, but still. I'll have to reread McKinley's later version of the story, to see if what little I remember about it is accurate.

One other thing that annoyed me about this version was the whole "Beauty's not pretty" aspect. I think that was something that really appealed to me when I was younger, but, now that I'm in my late 20's, too much harping on the "I'm not beautiful" stuff gets a bit annoying. Beauty doesn't seem to really feel sorry for herself, which is nice, and no one goes around telling her that she's not beautiful, but... I think the thing that really got to me was when Beauty volunteered to be the one to go to the Beast, one of her reasons being that she'll be least likely to be missed because she's not beautiful. Seriously? That's just dumb.

And then apparently love made Beauty beautiful, or something, because she's magically beautiful by the end of the book. I've seen this sort of thing in other books before (the first one that comes to mind is Knight of a Trillion Stars by Dara Joy), and it's kind of annoying. Couldn't she look into the mirror and see herself looking just like herself, only happier? Is this supposed to be one of those things where she was always beautiful and was just never able to notice it before?

Overall, I still liked the book, even if the story seemed to be missing a few explanatory details and I was annoyed by Beauty thinking people wouldn't miss her as much because she wasn't the "pretty one" (oh, gag). After all, it had nice romance, magic, and a really awesome library. However, this probably isn't going to be one of those books I'll be hunting for during my used bookstore shopping trips.

There are lots and lots of books based on the Beauty and the Beast story. I could list as many of them as I can find, but I don't want to. If you'd like more than what I've listed here, though, let me know and I can tell you some more.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - After her father dies, Rose Hawkins, a young scholar, finds herself in dire financial straits. When she is offered a position as a governess for the children of Jason Cameron, a wealthy rail baron in San Francisco, she feels she has little choice but to accept. However, Cameron has no children and doesn't need a governess. He's actually an Elemental Master whose specialty is Fire. He needs Rose's help to undo a spell that transformed his appearance and forced him to become a recluse. With an old enemy looking for any exploitable weakness, Cameron must work quickly. Another book based, more loosely, upon the Beauty and the Beast story.
  • Disney's Beauty and the Beast (animated movie) - If you haven't seen this yet, OMG are you kidding?? Go, find it, watch it - if you like McKinley's book, this will feel almost like the animated version of it (awesome library, gorgeous dress, kindly father, nice horse, etc.), although there are still quite a few differences between the two. I must admit, it's been ages since I've last seen this (or, really, any animated Disney movie), but this one has been one of my favorites since I first saw it.
  • Rose Daughter (book) by Robin McKinley - McKinley's other retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. I know, I know, I'm cheating. Hey, it's not like I'm being paid to do this, and coming up with read-alikes and descriptions for them can take an annoyingly long amount of time. So, I'm cheating.
  • Howl's Moving Castle (anime movie) - This movie is based on Diana Wynne Jones's book of the same title, but only loosely, if I remember correctly. Sophie is a plain young hatter who is cursed by an evil witch. Stuck with the body of an old woman, Sophie seeks out the wizard Howl, figuring that, even with his dreadful reputation, he's her best chance and becoming young again. Sophie becomes his housekeeper, befriends his fire demon and his apprentice, and eventually helps Howl with problems he didn't even know the full extent of. This has the feeling of a fairy tale, with its fantasy elements and magical curses, and may therefore appeal to those who liked McKinley's book. In addition, considering that Sophie spends most of the movie as a stooped old woman, the ending is surprisingly romantic, in a sweet rather than annoying sort of way - Sophie's likability helped a lot, as did the nicely developed friendship between her and Howl.

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