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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Charming Beauty Everything a Fairy Tale Should Be

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Disney's Beauty and the Beast will always be my favorite, but Robin McKinley's version comes in a close second. With lush description, a down-to-earth heroine and a plot that's lovely in its simplicity, Beauty breathes freshness into the familiar tale. First published in 1978, McKinley's debut novel has definitely stood the test of time. And for good reason. It's a sweet, magical tale about the power of true love.

The story revolves around a wealthy family made up of a sea merchant father and his three daughters: Grace, Hope and Honour (nicknamed "Beauty"). When the Hustons experience an abrupt reversal of fortune, they're forced to move into a humble country cottage far from the city which they've called home. Surrounded by thick woods, their new house is small and isolated; nonetheless, the family is glad to be there. Even when they hear frightening tales about the forest. It's true that no animals seem to dwell amid the denseness of the trees, but there can't possibly be an ogre living in the woods. Surely, that's another one of the country people's silly superstitions.

When Mr. Huston loses his way in the forest, he returns with an unbelievable story. It's a tale of magic, enchantment and a beast straight out of a young girl's nightmare. If it weren't for the perfect red rose he shows the girls, they wouldn't believe it. The flower convinces them - their father's telling the truth, meaning he must fulfill his promise to return to the beast's lair, where he will remain prisoner forever. Beauty begs to take his place, but Mr. Huston will not allow it. Plain and bookish, Beauty knows she, of all the sisters, has the least chance of flourishing in society - she rides into the forest, resolute.

Trapped in a magic castle with a horrifying beast, Beauty struggles to hide her fear. The more she explores her new world, the more she comes to realize that nothing in the enchanted forest is quite what it seems. Not even the monster that haunts the halls of the palace. Whispers of a terrible secret waft through the air, but Beauty can't quite understand. What happened to the cursed manor? Who is the beast? Is he truly as horrible as he seems? Can Beauty find a way out of her entrapment or is she doomed to spend all the years of her life imprisoned by an ogre?

Although McKinley makes her story feel new, she doesn't stray far from the classic tale. It remains a predictably, comfortingly tender story about looking beyond outward appearances. Beauty, herself, reinforces this idea - she doesn't know she's pretty, has no idea how brave she really is, and can't quite understand why the beast admires her so. I love that she's a diamond-in-the-rough, not nearly as polished as Belle, but just as charming. Even though I knew exactly how it would end, I found her story compelling. And sweet. And delightful. Precisely how a fairy tale should be.

(Readalikes: other classic fairy tales)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for scary situations

To the FTC, with love: Another library fine find


  1. This sounds good! I was just reading Trisha Jan Brett's version of Beauty and the Beast, and I was thinking it would lend itself well to a novel.

  2. Didn't we have that book growing up? It seems really familiar!

  3. I love this book! I read it years ago... I think it's time to read it again! :)

  4. Thanks for bringing this up. It will definitely go on my wishlist. I would love to read this to my daughter. Is it for YA or would a younger child (9 years) enjoy it too?

  5. Stephanie - Oooh, I love Jan Brett. I'll have to look for that one.

    P - I'm pretty sure I got a copy of BEAUTY after hearing Robin McKinley speak at a writer's conference when I was in middle school or high school. Not sure, though.

    Robin - Definitely worth a re-read :)

    Laura - Good question. There's nothing in the book that would be offensive to a 9-year-old, but it's written in kind of a dense, old-fashioned way, so I don't know if it would keep your daughter's interest or not.


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