Beauty was the debut novel of now far-more-prolific American author Robin McKinley, and is a re-telling of the classic story of Stockholm Syndrome and toxic masculinity Beauty and the Beast. Less Gaston, a tiny bit more agency for Belle, and not-horrible female relations improve, while less cleverness, not as much evidence for the Stockholm syndrome to set in, and no awesome animated furniture or musical numbers detract from the telling of a problematic story in an only marginally less problematic way. A lot of this can be chalked up to adherence to the overall themes of the source material, and more to this being the debut work of an author who goes on to improve dramatically, but overall I sort of have to give this a resounding ‘ehhhhh’.
A strange imprisonment…
Beauty has never liked her nickname. She is thin and awkward; it is her two sisters who are the beautiful ones. But what she lacks in looks, she can perhaps make up for in courage.
When her father comes home with the tale of an enchanted castle in the forest and the terrible promise he had to make to the Beast who lives there, Beauty knows she must go to the castle, a prisoner of her own free will. Her father protests that he will not let her go, but she answers, “Cannot a Beast be tamed?”
Robin McKinley’s beloved telling illuminates the unusual love story of a most unlikely couple, Beauty and the Beast.
So I hopefully don’t have to go into the reasons why the story of Beauty and the Beast is problematic at its core in any great detail. A young woman is basically imprisoned against her will by a big hulking beast man with brooding depression issues that express themselves in fits of rage, who refuses to talk in any detail about why he’s insisted on this whole process. She decides eventually that she’s no longer afraid of him and in fact is in love with him, all is forgiven and they live happily ever after. Ick. Basically none of that has changed in this retelling. In fact, there’s less time with them together happily, a larger lack of information on her part about what’s going on, and it feels like she literally went from “I guess he’s okay, but this whole life imprisonment thing is super uncool” to “I love him so much I must go to him!” on basically no basis whatsoever.
Part of the reason for that is that pretty much the entire process of her living with the beast in the castle is the last of three sections of a book that was only about 170 pages long in my version. The first section is focused on the decline of her family’s fortunes, and establishing her as explicitly not pretty, but clever and strong-willed. Then the second section sort of stalls for time to set up the interaction between the beast and her father where he is forced to choose between his life and hers. This at least is the part where she has a little more agency. In most versions of the story, she goes to the castle to find him, and has to decide in the spur of the moment, to pull the switcheroo and leave herself in his place. It’s brave, certainly, but it ends up being very impulsive in most portrayals. In McKinley’s version, she has a full month to think about it, talk with her family, have second thoughts, and still decide she’s making the choice. That I liked rather a lot.
But when we get to the events in the castle, things fell a little off the rails for me again. Beauty’s nickname is supposed to be ironic. She is frequently described as unattractive, both in general and in comparison to her sisters. At one point the beast observes that she is well-named, and she scoffs. He then says something along the lines of beauty being in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nobody else there but him, and he says she’s beautiful so how can she object? Leaving aside the whole idea that not much feels less romantic when complimenting a woman like reminding her that she’s an isolated captive with no other people around, he’s basically saying ‘as a lonely dude who hasn’t seen another woman in 200 years, you, my last hope for freedom from this curse are beautiful to me’. It certainly doesn’t feel very genuine or flattering.
Then we have Beauty’s cleverness. She’s an academic, she loves to read, she’s a thinker. But she doesn’t even vaguely begin to figure out what’s actually going on in the castle. Something gives her the ability to hear the servants in the castle (who are invisible/incorporeal instead of furniture) and from them she manages to pick up that there is -something- she is supposed to figure out, but they conveniently don’t go into any detail, and at no point did she even seem to suspect that the curse was in some way tied to agreeing to marry the Beast. The whole ‘of her own free will’ element that is also key to the story was also strained a little in this version. The Beast asked her every night to marry him, and she says no. You’d think his continued asking of that specific question might have also tipped her off about what was going on but that didn’t happen either.
Instead what we get is her begging due to circumstance to leave for just a short time to go deliver some information to her family. He reluctantly agrees with portentous ‘if you don’t come back, I’ll die’ drama. It’s when she’s returned home after months of isolation and imprisonment and her family is remarking over and over how cruel and horrible it is to imprison her, and she’s saying ‘well, aside from the whole prisoner thing, he’s actually quite nice’ and ‘aside from the whole locked in my room at night because of his fits of rage thing, he’s actually quite friendly’ that she suddenly realizes ‘oh goodness I’m in love with him’ and rushes back desperate to re-subject herself to imprisonment and confess her newly discovered love. She does so, the curse is lifted and everything is great. And it happens in the book about that fast too. The whole process is about 15 pages long.
Even in the confessions of love portion of the story, problematic crap happens. She confesses her love, agrees to marry him, and then the curse is lifted. So now instead of being a hideous beast he’s such a handsome man! Now she demurs, she can’t possibly marry -him- he’s so hot and she’s so plain and unattractive! But lo, he points her towards a mirror and she suddenly realizes ‘oh my, my 6 months of imprisonment and confinement have made me also beautiful, sure let’s get married’ and then everything is great. She’s completely forgiven him for putting her in this situation in the first place.
Of course, let’s be fair here. This is the retelling of a problematic story. It was pretty much always going to have been problematic if it stayed at all true to the source material. This is also the debut work of an author who goes on to make many wonderful things. Those two circumstances forgive a lot in this reading. It was a well-written version of the story. The issues I have with it are predominantly the ones I have with any version of Beauty and the Beast because the story itself is just pretty gross. The pacing was weird and it spend a lot of time on not the story, but the background elements were actually pretty nice. If this book had been 50 pages longer, so we could have spent more time in the castle, establishing an actual relationship between Beauty and the Beast besides walks in the garden, that would also have likely helped it some. It otherwise just felt like a very slow dragging start to a sudden finish.
So should you read this book? If you’re a Robin McKinley completionist or a massive Beauty and the Beast fan, absolutely. Otherwise, I can definitely suggest some McKinley you’ll like a lot better, especially The Hero and the Crown which I read earlier this year and quite enjoyed. Reading veteran authors’ early work is often interesting just to see where they came from, but between the awkward pacing, and generally problematic nature of the story this is based on, jumping in to her later and original work will certainly be a lot more fun.
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