For the third time, I examine the story of Beauty and the Beast in Robin McKinley's Beauty: A retelling of Beauty and the Beast. As I've said before, this fairy tale is near and dear to my heart. A large part of it is that the decision, the movement in the fairy tale belongs the the girl. My other fondness comes from the fact the story involves no violence but the Beast's initial threat that if the father doesn't send one of his daughters in his place, he will be killed.
Beauty follows the original story closely, once it gets to the Beast. The first two sections of the book follow Beauty's story before she ever reaches the Beast. Notable and a nice twist--Beauty isn't beautiful. Her name is Honor. When she was young and learned her and her sister's names meant something, her father succeeded in explaining Grace and Hope, but had trouble with Honor, leading her to comment she would rather be called Beauty, which stuck. However her youthful beauty did not, and as she grew older she grew into an awkward, undersized, sallow creature while her sisters grew beautiful.
She still is the youngest of three sisters of a wealthy merchant. However, her two sisters are far from bratty, and are well rounded, likable characters, as are all of the characters. The first part of the book introduces you to her world when her father is rich and she is the youngest, bookworm child. At the end of that section, his fortunes take a turn for the worse, and they become poor. They follow Hope's fiancé to the wild north country, where magic is said to still exist.
It is here, in a cottage at the edge of town, that she first comes into contact with the enchanted forest, and is told to stay out because there is a monster within.
What I love most about this book is that very little happens. Other than the threat of violence in the enchanted forest before she goes to the Beast's, and a suggestion the castle might be dangerous to her at night, the book is a quiet, every day affair. Beauty is a strong willed, eccentric character. The Beast is a gentle creature, most haunting not by his claws or fangs, but for the fact his eyes look human.
McKinley sticks close to the original fairy tale. Instead of needing to proclaim her love to the Beast, a common change in the story, Beauty must agree to marry the Beast. As in the original fairy tale, he asks her every day after dinner.
In the enchanted castle, Beauty is attended by two "breezes" who bring her food and clothes and take care of her. The castle has its own way of moving around, making it difficult for her to find her way at first. When she arrives, no animals live on the entire estate. The Beast worries that she has brought her horse, who will be terrified of him.
Changes to their lives happen slowly. Beauty goes from fear of the Beast to acceptance, to friendship, to a realization of love.
The true beauty of the book is that it is a character study, mostly based in every day life--in small details and changes. We get to know Beauty in her every day circumstances in the first two sections of the book, and how she grows to be strong. In the section with the Beast, we see a strong and open minded young woman, who is willing to adapt. It is a fantasy book where much of the book follows every day circumstances of getting to know a small community. Of coming to terms with having to wash her own floor and clothes. Of moving from avoiding the Beast to actively search him out for their afternoon walks. Magic changes in the moment she gets sparrows to come eat seeds off her window sill.
I first read this book when I was eleven. I come back to it often. I was early in my own experiments writing a novel then. It taught me that my characters did not have to be thrown from one extreme circumstances to others to keep the tension up. Beauty helped teach me the character driven novel.