Module 1-YA Classics
McKinley, Robin. Beauty. New York, Pocket Books. 1978. ISBN 0671733338
McKinley’s Beauty is a retelling of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. While Beauty has all of the expected hallmarks of a “young girl falls in love with the man within the monster” story, it also includes variations on the original tale that are often left out of the more contemporary retellings, such as Beauty’s two sisters or the fact that her father is a merchant who has fallen on bad times. Despite the fact that the ending is pleasantly predictable, which if it were otherwise would be a problem for a retelling of this classic tale, the novel is an enjoyable and quick read.
For the most part, it isn’t that McKinley does something new in Beauty that makes it memorable; it’s that she does the story well. Rather than reinventing the story, she adds depth to the already well know tale. She makes Beauty an androgynous character to her community, yet distinctly feminine in her thoughts. She makes beauty real in that, as the youngest, Beauty compares herself to her sisters. She calls herself a sparrow several times, and her self-descriptions, those of a mousy haired, muddy eyed girl, support that. In fact, Beauty is such a reliable voice, that until Beast sticks her in front of a mirror, it is easy for the reader to see a slightly plain girl in finery (and protesting said finery) roaming the grounds and halls of the castle.
Beauty is set in a magical version of our world. In fact, if it weren’t for the books, both those that Beauty read in the city, such as Socrates and Euripidies, and those in Beast’s library that haven’t been written yet, specifically Robert Browning’s poetry and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, the reader could easily assume the whole world is some fairytale “elsewhere.” In fact, some of the classic fairytale or other-world elements are either missing or explained away neatly, making it that much more realistic. For example, in classic fairy worlds, time flows differently. While initially this appears to be true, the garden doesn’t wither and the roses Beast sends Beauty grow and bloom at an alarming rate, the reader later finds out that time flows at the same rate, as seen via Beast’s scrying table. Rather the garden, and the weather in general, are explained by Beast controlling part of the enchantment on the castle. He states this matter-of-factly, easily allowing the reader to accept this at face value, and move on to examining the characters, rather than the magical setting.
As someone who has read, and enjoyed, some of McKinley’s newer works, I was ready for an enjoyable slog through mystical mud. Meaning, I was expecting a well written, if difficult, read with an almost Tolkien-esque attention to setting. Instead, I got a fun romp through an intriguing, if mostly prefabricated, world.
Books for Keeps—“ It is exactly what it professes to be, a retelling of the traditional story of Beauty and the Beast, playing fair and straight, with no labouring to update or displace or play clever narrative tricks with the familiar version, and not the slightest effort to politicize or moralize it.”
(Another interesting review is this one from Amazon)
Amazon—“ Rather than giving her story a contrived “twist,” McKinley merely fleshes out the storyline and gives the characters personalities.”
(It is interesting to note, that many of the current reviews of Beauty I read on Goodreads point out that there is nothing special about the story. It isn’t in a modern, or futuristic, setting. There isn’t any teenage angst. It’s essentially a fairy tale, which apparently is a problem with modern adult readers.)
Harwood, Pam. Books For Keeps. May 2003. (No. 130.) Accessed via CLCD at http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/jbookdetail/jqbookdetail?page=1&pos=15&isbn=9780385604802