During the freezing Wisconsin winter term of my junior year of college, I curled up with a classic novel from renowned fantasy writer Robin McKinley. That book was called Beauty, a novel-length retelling of Beauty and the Beast. When the stars align to not only give you a novel-length retelling of your favorite fairy tale, but also fresh and quality characters with breezy storytelling, it’s a good day indeed. Now, how about when that author returns to the same fairy tale twenty years later? Can the same magic be made a second time with Rose Daughter?
Just to say up front, this is not a compare-and-contrast between Beauty and Rose Daughter. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but it’s not so much comparing apples to oranges, as much as it is comparing two different roses. They’re both the same flower, but they have different smells and colors, providing a unique experience either way.
The first point to Rose Daughter is that it makes three-dimensional, likable characters of Beauty’s sisters, Lionheart and Jeweltongue, both usually lazy, jealous shrews in fairy tale books. The conflict with Rose Daughter lies not with Beauty being the only hard-worker in her lazy family, but rather how she discovers the secrets behind the Beast’s palace. McKinley’s strength lies in making the ordinary extraordinary: she could write for pages and pages about roses and paintings and the other mundane objects of the palace, and yet she keeps you in the palm of her hand. A whole chapter shows Beauty discovering a painting of the night sky on the palace roof, and how enthralled she is with the detail and meaning behind each constellation—a mundane experience, but you are breathless at the end of it.
The catch with this story, though, is that the magic is not sequestered only in the Beast’s palace. Beauty’s world is one of sorcerers, magicians, and “greenwitches,” and, while the mythology and history of this world kind of feeds a childlike imagination, it also kind of takes away the power from Beauty’s experiences in the palace. Transporting an altogether ordinary heroine into a magical world was part of the fairy tale’s appeal for me, so that was kind of a disappointment. Also the stories got so convoluted at times, that I kind of just stopped caring about keeping them straight.
I also didn’t quite buy into Beauty’s relationship with the Beast. The point to Beauty being in the palace is to help the roses—the so-called center of the palace—grow; once those grow and thrive again, then she can leave. But because she spends so much time with the roses, and less time with the Beast, their romance doesn’t feel as real and true, which is sad because Beauty was a good character. She was quirky and sarcastic sometimes, but altogether pure and true, as befitting a fairy tale heroine. The Beast…well…he was gloomy and strong, that’s about it.
Also, I know the perennial symbol of Beauty and the Beast has always been a rose, but this book was half a word from an orgy of rose depiction. Every description seemed to find some excuse to include the word “rose.” I wouldn’t call it unoriginal to put so much emphasis on a particular symbol, but if I never read that word in a book again, it’ll be too soon.
I promised myself, and the rest of you, that I wouldn’t compare this book to Beauty, but I will say this: if I had to choose the superior novel-length retelling of the classic French tale, it’s not going to be Rose Daughter. I will not deny the beauty and sweeping enchantment of McKinley’s style, but some tales simply cannot be conjured the same way, with the same magic, twice.