a retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast
by Robin McKinley
Beauty is the first McKinley book I ever read, way back when I was about fourteen. And I fell in love with it. I can't count how many times I read it over again. I think I was first intrigued by how incongruous the title and the girl pictured on the cover of my old paperback (shown here) seemed- she's just so homely. Even one of my school friends remarked: wow, that girl's ugly (in a totally dismissive voice). By that point I was so enthralled by the book I felt indignant at her judgment of it by its cover!
It's quickly explained in the story that Beauty's given name is actually Honour, but when she learned at five years old what it meant, she said "Huh, I'd rather be Beauty!" and the nickname stuck. Compared to her two pretty, graceful sisters, Beauty was the tomboy of the family. She preferred working with her hands, loved studying books, and faced everything with a very down-to-earth attitude. So when her father lost his fortune and the family had to move from the city to a humble little village, Beauty tried to see the adventure in it all. Far from being intimidated by the dark forest their house butted up against, rumored to harbor an enchanted castle and a ferocious beast, Beauty was curious. When her father (as the familiar fairy tale goes) became lost in the forest and enraged the beast, Beauty offered herself up and went to live in the magic castle. The mysterious enchantments of the castle and Beauty's reactions to them are so well-described in this book. Floating candlesticks, dishes that serve themselves, self-pruning roses, and a library full of books from the future! At first, of course, she is frightened, but gradually she becomes bolder and grows used to the strangeness of her surroundings and even the fearsome Beast himself. I loved how she asserted herself, arguing with the invisible servants and trying to accustom her terrified horse to the Beast's presence. The love story here unfolds very gradually, Beauty and her Beast slowly growing more and more comfortable with each other until they find they are good friends, and perhaps something more. I also liked that the good first third of the book is about her family, how they face their initial hardships and settle into their new surroundings. It established the characters as very real people; and I was glad that her family members reappeared later in the story. The final scene was a grand confusion, but I didn't mind much.
I thought of this book today because my four-year-old was watching the Disney version. My husband was unfamiliar with the fairy tale when he first watched the film with her, and I remember him asking me afterward: but at what point did Beauty fall in love with the Beast? He couldn't pinpoint it. We talked for a bit about his gradual transformation into a more well-behaved, friendly persona, but then I looked at him sideways and said "I know the moment when she fell in love with him."
"It was when he gave her the library."
"Ah! Don't tell me that!"
And what a library it was. I think my dream library looks like the one in the Beast's castle.
Rating: 5/5 ........ 247 pages, 1978 .......... Find it at Powell's
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