Book Review: Beauty by Robin McKinley

Technically this is more of a young adult novel, but would work as a good bridge for students at the upper level of middle grade novels who are ready to stretch.  There’s no mature or objectionable content.  My best friend and I fell in love with book in middle school, before we ever saw the movie, so this has always been the definitive version for me.  I return to over and over, for comfort and inspiration, much like I turn to my best friend.

This isn’t Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  Beauty has two kindly sisters, and the village folk are friendly.  Instead of a swaggering town bully, Beauty’s admirer is a painfully awkward and completely forgettable young lad.  The castle is crowded with magic and disembodied voices, but no tap-dancing cutlery.  McKinley’s story was written long before the Disney version, and clearly provided inspiration for the strong, intelligent, self-sufficient heroine.

McKinley follows the classic story’s original format.  A wealthy merchant, a reversal of fortune, a selfless trade to save her father’s life.  Beauty befriends the Beast.  After a brief trip home, Beauty realizes the Beast’s good nature is the key to her happiness.  Voila, happy ending.  McKinley crafts a world that is familiar to us and yet uniquely her own.  The wealthy merchant has three daughters, Grace, Hope, and Beauty.  Grace and Hope are “lovely, with every eligible young man – and many more who were neither – dying of love for them.”  Grace is engaged to a ship captain, and Hope to a blacksmith; McKinley thus sets the stage for valuing character over worldly gain.

Then the ships – and Grace’s beloved ship captain – are lost at sea, and their fortune disappears.  Hope’s blacksmith sweeps them off to his family’s cottage in the distant forest to start fresh.  There is a quiet murmur of magic in the background, but its greatest feat seems to be that no one notices it.  Until the fateful night her father comes home from a trip, bearing a single perfect rose.  He tells of a magical castle, a fierce Beast, and a terrible offer.  Beauty doesn’t hesitate.

McKinley’s power lies in her superb craftsmanship.  The story unfolds slowly as a rose, and just as beautifully.  She describes the Beast’s enchanted flowers “as if each were a gem, and the polish of each facet the life’s work of a fairy jeweler,” and her writing is much the same way.  Each place seems real and yet beautiful, from the smell of the horse sweat to the whispering of silken skirts.

Interestingly, there is no real villain in this tale.  Beauty’s father loses his fortune not through greed, but the simple misfortune of sunken or missing ships.  The sister’s true love is torn away, again, by circumstance.  The Beast is never a threat, but simply a sad victim of his own actions.  There’s no pitchfork-and-torch mob, or even any hungry wolves.  If anything, Beauty’s only nemesis is her own introversion.  She enjoys the simple things in life – her horse Greatheart, her family, her books.  She likes the Beast, but doesn’t realize that he might be necessary to her happiness.

The pace of the story may be too slow for some readers.  There’s no exciting action or breathtaking suspense.  It’s a slow, thoughtful immersion.  Tween girls – let’s face it, the readers will be mostly girls – will identify with Beauty’s general awkwardness.  Beauty doesn’t match her name; throughout her growing years she is short and plain and even pimpled.  It doesn’t help that her sisters are achingly beautiful.  Beauty busies herself with books and horses, but she’s also the clever, capable one.  She’s the first to step up and tackle problems.  Beauty’s determined, thoughtful nature can be an excellent guide for young girls preparing to face the larger world.

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