Wednesday, 11 September 2013

'Beauty' by Robin McKinley (1978)

Synopsis: Beauty is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The heroine's real name is Honour but when Honour was a little girl she decided that her name was boring and that she'd rather be called "Beauty" instead. The nickname has stuck with her but Beauty has come to dislike it due to her plain (or so she thinks) looks. Beauty lives with her two older sisters, the beautiful Hope and Grace, and her kind and wealthy father. But then all of their lives are suddenly changed forever when Beauty's father, a shipping merchant, loses all of his ships. Their money soon goes with them and Grace's fiancé, who captained one of the ships, is presumed to have died. Hope then marries a poor but worthy country lad and, after selling almost all of their possessions, the family leaves their home in the city to move to a small village in the countryside. Their cottage is next to a mysterious old forest. After spending several years in the country, Beauty's father then goes on a trip and gets lost in the forest. He comes back with a single red rose for Beauty but her father paid a price in taking this rose. He must either die or allow Beauty to go and live at a castle where a mysterious Beast lives. With only her horse to accompany her, Beauty goes to the castle. There she finds invisible servants, a magical library, friendly birds, and a melancholy Beast who asks Beauty to marry him every night...

Like many little girls I grew up with the Disney version of the Beauty and the Beast story and it's still one of my favourite films of all-time. And thanks to the TV show Once Upon a Time I'm also a huge Rumbelle shipper : ) Up until I watched that show I'd never actually come across another retelling of the fairytale before and it made me want to look at others. So after doing a bit of research I decided to read Beauty, Robin McKinley's debut novel. Beauty is not just Robin McKinley's most famous and beloved book, it's also considered to be one of the very best fairytale retellings yet written. Beauty was also a really original book for its time. There's nothing particularly original about fairytale retellings now of course but back when McKinley wrote this book it was something that was relatively unusual.

Beauty isn't one of those retellings that tries to give the original story a new and shocking twist. McKinley simply fleshes out the original fairytale more and gives the characters more depth. And she does this brilliantly. I absolutely loved the way McKinley told this story. The writing in the book is just excellent. The prose is simple and yet it's still highly descriptive and evocative. The book is filled with atmosphere; whether McKinley is writing about Beauty's cosy and homely cottage in the country or whether she's writing about the fantastical and eerie castle. Oh and that scene in the Disney film where the Beast gives Belle his library, you remember that right? Well, that film's library is nothing compared to the library that's in this book! This book has a magical library that contains every single book in the entire world - even books that haven't been written yet! It's the TARDIS of libraries! Another thing that I really loved about the writing was its sense of timelessness. It's really not clear as to which time period the book is actually set in and some readers have complained about this. However, this was actually one of the things that I enjoyed the most about the book.

McKinley's book does stick quite closely to the original fairytale but there is one interesting variation in it. In the original fairytale Beauty's older sisters are cruel and spiteful but in this book they're both lovely and kind. Beauty gets on really well with them. To be honest Hope and Grace's characters are both fairly interchangeable with one another but since I did find them likeable this is only a small nitpick. And I really loved this change that McKinley made to the fairytale because it made it less of a Cinderella type story. That fairytale ends with the good sister getting rewarded and the bad sisters getting punished. But in this book Beauty has a loving family and all of the sisters get rewarded at the end.

My favourite character in this story was - surprise, surprise - Beauty. She's a fantastic heroine. She's clever, kind, strong and brave and she has a wry sense of humour. She loves horses, she's bookish, and she's a keen language student. She isn't at all whiny either. The Beast on the other hand is a more mysterious and shadowy character. And although he does seem to have a slightly sarcastic sense of humour we never really get to know him as much as we get to know Beauty because the book is told entirely from her POV - but then this book is very much Beauty's story.

Please don't be put off by the fact that this book is classed as a YA novel because Beauty is, well, a beautiful book and I loved it. McKinley makes the story her own and her book is full of magic and mystery. It's also a beautiful romance and is an absolutely lovely book. I'll definitely be reading more of McKinley's books in the future. I'm especially looking forward to reading her retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale and her alternate retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. Before I wrap up this post I thought I'd include this little review of the book because it sums up everything that I thought about it:

'A love story for teenagers that marries realism and fantasy with satisfying imagination, elegance of prose and thoughtful characterisation. McKinley's Beauty is more than skin-deep' Sunday Times

Rating: 5/5


Anonymous said...

What's the name of the Sleeping Beauty one? I have read it but completely forgot about it til now (though I remember I did like it a lot) and I'd quite like to track it down again from the library :)

Indigo Montoya said...

I'm sure it's called 'Spindle's End'. Hang on a second, I'll just look that up... yes it is! Yay! It looks like I've helped you rediscover an old favourite! : )