Beauty by Robin McKinley
genre: fantasy, fairy tale
rating: 5.5/8 tentacles
Robin McKinley writes refreshingly elegant prose. I was especially taken with the descriptions of the enchanted castle; its somber, grandiose decor; and all of the opulent little details of the wardrobe magically procured for Beauty. I like the idea of the blue dress with silver embroidered birds, the hall of portraits that capture the lives of their subjects, and the haunting, animalistic images in the carved arch over the castle’s entrance.
The existence of magic in Beauty’s world is casually introduced, long before we see any evidence of it, in a way that suggests it might only be the stuff of stories. Beauty’s family, who were born and bred in the city, view the countryside and the forests as the dark homes of goblins, fairies, and dragons. The curiosity and uncertainty in Beauty’s delivery of this information smacks of superstition and I could imagine the stories as follies of the ignorant, people’s beliefs about the Unknown they fear. Like those mapmakers who wrote “Here Be Dragons” across painted seas stitched with snakey coils. This representation of magic gave the world an anchor in reality. The novel begins in a world like our own, or like ours once might have been, and we discover magic along with Beauty. McKinley’s is a whimsical, enchanting magic. Two whirling breezes try to dress Beauty in clothes she feels are too extravagant for her and the tea things and dinner plates move on their own, constantly shoving each other out of the way in an effort to present their dish to the visiting lady.
The character of Beauty didn’t make much of an impression on me. Her love of books lacked wonder and curiosity. Her sacrifice wasn’t much of one—she didn’t seem to mind giving up her life or her family although she did miss them once she was gone. She waxed on about the Greeks and learning languages and struck me as a generally stuffy and uninteresting person. My favorite characters were her father, who had such kind intentions, and the Beast. And Greatheart, who became a capital “C” Character in my mind even though he was Beauty’s horse.
McKinley’s writing style and descriptions posses a lovely, sophisticated maturity. I called her prose refreshing earlier because I’m always glad to find writing without that overly sensationalized hyper-introspection that seems to have become common. That type of writing toes the edge of a cliff, over which is a steep descent into self-indulgent blather. But there is none of that here.
There’s more summary than I would like. A balance between summary and action scenes (scenes that relay info vs. scenes during which action unfolds before us) allows the reader to experience the story with the characters at a steady pace. Too much summary creates too much distance between reader and character and too much action might overstimulate or deaden the pace. It depends. I think Beauty could have done with a few more action scenes.
This particular retelling was more similar to the french film released in the forties than to the probably better known Disney film (which I began re-watching after I finished this book). I don’t think I’ve ever actually read any version of Beauty and the Beast before so I can’t compare it to the original fairy tale (although I can say that the characters and background were supplied with a depth absent from fairy tales), but I enjoyed this book very much. I read it all in one day.
If you like this, or think you might like this, or like Beauty and the Beast type stories in general, I recommend reading East by Edith Patou.