This BEAUTY lacks luster…

Posted Oct 21 2010, 8:00 am in ,

This month, Book Hungry selected BEAUTY, A RETELLING OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, by Robin McKinley for review. I try hard not to use spoilers in these reviews but find that is impossible in this case.  But, since it’s a tale as old as time, maybe you’ll forgive me for it just this once.

I did not like the book.

Wow, that’s hard to say. I love stories, love books – the way the pages feel under my fingers.  I like stories that make me care about the characters, that drop me into the action. Hand me an Avery Cates novel and I am oblivious to the roar of NASCAR engines on the big screen TV, to the dinner burning in the oven, and even to someone speaking directly to me. (My sons can attest to this.)  For me to admit I didn’t care for a story is an extremely rare occurrence. The last time it happened was with Angelology and I don’t like the feeling.

Here is the summary:

Sixteen-year-old Beauty has never liked her nickname. Thin, awkward, and undersized, with big hands and huge feet, she has always thought of herself as the plainest girl in her family – certainly not nearly as lovely as her elder sisters, Hope and Grace. But what she lacks in looks, she makes up for in courage. When her father comes home one day with the strange tale of an enchanted castle in the wood and the terrible promise he has made to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows what she must do. She must go to the castle and tame the Beast – if such a thing is possible.

Here is the unusual love story of a most unlikely couple: Beauty and the Beast.

Books are my life, and words are my business, so how indeed can it be possible for me to not like a story?  I’ve thought about that and here’s what I’ve come up with.  I am not a fan of most classic lit. I have yet to finish a single Jane Austen novel because they bore me to tears. I didn’t like Lord of the Rings because it moved too slowly.  Based on the back cover summary, there should be plenty of action to keep me interested. But there wasn’t.

BEAUTY is a short book but it’s divided into three parts, two of which I found unnecessary. I inserted book marks at each Part’s beginning and closed the book.  Eye-balling my bookmarks, I see that Part 3 starts about mid-book. This is where I would have begun the story.  Instead, McKinley devotes Part 1 to character history, introducing us to Beauty, whose real name is Honour, and her two older sisters, Hope and Grace. Despite the entire first Part dedicated to introductions, I could not keep straight who was Hope and who was Grace, which is important because one of them is in love with a sailor later lost at sea and the other, with an iron worker named Gervain.  I never forged any connections to these characters to care how the story developed. We’re told Beauty is unfortunately named and that she is the clever and courageous one. Much of these first fifty pages is devoted to describing how clever Beauty is, which set my expectations that her cleverness might somehow aid her eventual fate to tame the Beast.

A reversal of the family’s fortune forces them out of their home and into the wood, where Gervain has located a blacksmith forge suitable for the entire lot should Beauty’s sister Hope ( I think) accept his marriage proposal.  It’s a hard life, but the girls all adjust and Hope is happy in her marriage. Meanwhile, news of the ship lost at sea arrives and Beauty’s father returns to their former home to learn what became of his men.  The months pass and when her father returns, he arrives with a rose and a very strange tale of an enchanted castle in the woods owned by a horrible beast who has forced him into even more horrible promise.

Part 2 picks up with Father relating both tale and promise. For stealing one of the Beast’s roses, Father must hand over Beauty. Beauty must agree to the plan of her own free will because she loves her father enough to want to save his life… and be courageous enough to bear the separation.  I figured these conditions must have something to do with the enchantment that made Beast a beast, but …   I was left hanging here.

There is a debate, but in the end, Beauty insists upon going to fulfill her father’s promise.  Here is some proof of the courage I’d expected her to display but I expected… more.

Finally, Part 3 is where the traditional story begins. Beauty meets the Beast and adjusts to life in the enchanted castle. For someone whose cleverness is so lauded throughout Parts 1 and 2, I expected Beauty’s curiosity to answer the questions I had – how did the Beast come to be a beast? Why force such horrid promises from a stranger? What was her role in his world, aside from his admission he is looking for a wife? But she is strangely docile, even polite to her captor and an uneasy and unlikely friendship too quickly forms between them as Beauty attempts to make the best of her situation, even growing happy to some extent.

I find this hard to believe.

As time passes, Beauty realizes she can hear some of the invisible servants hovering around her. Cleverness is again exhibited; Beauty does not acknowledge her ability to hear them. But again, I was disappointed that this ploy failed to yield any useful information about the secrets the Beast is keeping.

Then, poof! We hit the climax where Beauty is permitted home to inform her sister that the sailor feared lost at sea is returning for her. Miraculously, she discovers she is in love with the Beast, fights to find her way back to tell him so, though I was never sure why and the enchantment is lifted.

So, I felt let down. I had expectations and they were not met.  Is Beauty clever?  Then why did she never figure out the man in the portraits all over the castle were the Beast himself? Is Beauty courageous?  Then why did she never defy the Beast? Never test the limits of his patience, push the boundaries of the enchantment that surrounded them? Like Chekov’s Gun, these traits were stated repeatedly from the opening scene, hanging over the mantle and never fired.

Read BEAUTY for yourselves or better yet, read the other Book Hungry book club members’ reviews. See if you agree with me. If you don’t, I hope you’ll tell me what I missed.



7 responses to “This BEAUTY lacks luster…”

  1. abby mumford says:

    patty, this is a really well written review. i like that you didn’t like it. it gave our discussions some meat, rather than us all going, “yeah, i liked that too.”

    elizabeth made a comment once about how this is beauty’s story and not the beast’s, which is why this is called BEAUTY, not beauty and the beast. i think, for me, that helped to explain the lack of detail surrounding the beast, especially since the book’s in first person. beauty doesn’t know all those things about her captor, so we as the readers, can’t either. HOWEVER, i do agree with the checkov’s gun thing. i wanted a little more pluck and cleverness and courage out of our gal, beauty.

    • Patty says:

      Thanks, Abby. I agree; it’s OK to not like every book we read. As writers, it helps us learn what works and what doesn’t. As readers, it exposes us to stories we might have skipped.

      Elizabeth makes a good point: it’s Beauty’ story.

  2. Linda G. says:

    Isn’t it fascinating how there can be so many takes on the same book? Different strokes for different folks, eh? Not sure how I’ll feel about BEAUTY now–guess I’ll have to check it out from the library and take a look for myself.

    Thanks for a thoughtful review. :)

    • Patty says:

      Thank you, Linda. It is interesting how the same book can affect people in so many different ways and on different levels, right?

  3. Kelly B says:

    I didn’t care for the story itself either. I do think McKinley did justice to certain parts and like I said in discussion, if I were 17 my heart would probably have swooned.

    I think sometimes as writers we can get lost in stories and other times as writers it is harder because we see the obvious holes (to us anyway) and want those answers. Writing makes it harder to just go with it sometimes. But I loved your review even if it wasn’t a favorite.

    This is what made this months discussion so exciting. Now that we have gotten over not everyone liking one of the selections I would think it will get easier to review in our email circle.

    I am looking forward to the next one.

  4. Like you, I could have done without part one, but I kind of liked part two. I liked reading about their reversal of fortune and how they had to acclimate to their new lives in the country. But, yeah, the third part was where all the magic happened, which could have been a little more. :)

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Haha, see, and I took the whole “she’s so smart and brave” thing with a bit of salt, since it was her loving family who really played that up. Especially since they knew she didn’t think much of her looks. I mean, my family says really similar things about me, and I don’t think I would make a point of confronting a scary beast and picking a fight. Personally, I think I would probably be touting the benefits of discretion being the better part of valor. ;)