I really truly do not know what I would do without fairy tales. In times of anxiety and uncertainty, I always return to worlds filled with adventure, fairy godmothers, special creatures, far off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise…wait a minute.
A few months ago I reviewed Robin McKinley’s second foray into the world of beauties and beasts, Rose Daughter, wherein I waxed nostalgic about her original take on the classic French tale. I don’t intend to wax nostalgic this time, because Beauty, the award-winning—and arguably, the most famous—literary retelling of Beauty and the Beast, makes its appearance on this blog.
This book proved to me that long-winding descriptions and slow-burning stories can actually work—a very contrary notion to the minimalist, choppy style prominent in literature nowadays. A majority of the original story shows Beauty exploring the Beast’s castle, taking dinner with him, and repeatedly refusing his earnest proposal of marriage. And even then, most of their conversations are brushed over, so the modern author needs to create strong and believable chemistry this time around.
Such a repetitive story line is made very enjoyable with the natural and engaging development of Beauty and the Beast’s relationship. We can actually see the two becoming friends despite their initial awkwardness, and they make an honest effort to get along. There’s one scene where Beauty tries very, very hard to make her horse trust the Beast—a nearly impossible feat—which she accomplishes, and in the process, further cements a friendship with him.
I also like that the magical elements are relegated mostly to the Beast’s castle. There are scant mentions of dragons and magicians in Beauty’s world, but they are played off as legends and fireside tales, which makes Beauty’s adjustment to the Beast’s castle all the more difficult and interesting.
This retelling also proves that not every fairy tale needs to retain their wicked stepsisters. Beauty’s two sisters are originally lazy and cruel, but McKinley turns them into honest and loving women. If, for the first half of the book, we had to deal with such two-dimensionally unlikeable characters, it would have made for an unpleasant read, even with Beauty’s eloquent and likable voice. Plus, with the despair and hopelessness that Beauty’s family deals with, it would have been hard to make it all the way to Beauty meeting the Beast. It is also for these two sisters, not her father, that Beauty makes her third-act journey back home, throwing a wrench into the reader’s story expectations.
But again, the best part of this book is how it pulls you into its world that, on one hand, feels well realized and real, but is also steeped in myth and imagination. This is accomplished with Beauty’s exploring the Beast’s library, which includes familiar classic titles that won’t be published for years and years (Beauty tries reading Sherlock Holmes, but cannot comprehend the concept of a motorcar, so she is forced to give up).
I cannot say anything more about McKinley’s style, except that it is simply magic. And that’s why I return to this book: to lose myself not just in the familiar arms of my favorite fairy tale, but also because the language bounces and sweeps and carries you along on a comfortable, pleasant ride. I never read much of this book in my head; I have to listen to the story as perhaps only McKinley can tell it, and any author with a voice like that is a winner every time.