Date Read: 5.27.09
Book From: Personal collection
McKinley’s first published novel is actually one of the last of hers that I read, when in high school I belatedly rediscovered her books and went on a rampage through nearly all of her work – when much younger, I had tried and failed to get through The Outcasts of Sherwood, and hadn’t gone back since. (Actually, I’m currently still not up-to-date on her newest two novels, Dragonhaven and Chalice.) From what I’ve seen, Beauty might also be the most widely beloved of her work, in competition largely with the Damar books (The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown).
I remember that my working backwards to Beauty actually had an adverse effect on my opinion of it at first read – her later books tend towards much weightier plotlines and intricate, metaphorical language, so that I found Beauty simplistic by comparison. On re-reading it, I found that simplicity to be a great part of its charm. McKinley’s later books can perhaps be overburdened by axe-grinding (Deerskin), lengthy protagonist hand-wringing (Sunshine, which I passionately love nonetheless), and other excesses. (On reading Rose Daughter, McKinley’s second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, one of my roommates frankly remarked that McKinley “could use an editor.”)
By contrast, Beauty is fresh and openhearted, and although the prose may not be as elegant as that in McKinley’s mature works, her descriptions are exuberant and generously enchanting. Beauty, whose nickname here is ironic, is immediately recognizable as the archetype of McKinley’s heroines: likably bookish, plain, and straight-spoken, these anti-damsels may now litter the YA fantasy landscape, but McKinley’s are some of the first and definitely still some of the best. Beauty’s voice is funny and thoughtful, and being an inveterate lover of books, horses, and gardening myself, it’s pretty hard not to identify with her.
McKinley’s Beast is drawn with great tenderness and empathy, in both his loneliness and terrible otherness. He is simultaneously wise and childlike, vulnerable and frighteningly strong. Each of his conversations with Beauty is convincing and often heartbreakingly sweet. I want to say that the Beast is my favorite character, but he’s so inseparable from Beauty as a character that I have to say they’re both my favorite characters – which is as it should be! The dark, opulent, firelit atmosphere of the castle’s interior is full of satisfyingly rich and wondrous descriptive touches, particularly the Beast’s library, which contains every book ever written – including those not yet written, so that 18th-centuryish Beauty grapples with Kipling and descriptions of motorcars.
McKinley also strips the narrative of cartoonishly villainous stepsisters, so that the story instead focuses on both the flourishing of Beauty’s family in their new home – which, as in most of McKinley’s books, is a northern village whose liminality brings it both closer to the earth and to magic – and Beauty’s growing love for the Beast. In Rose Daughter, these two arcs are more closely paralleled, so that Beauty’s sisters themselves become stronger characters, whereas here they’re fairly interchangeable.
Overall, Beauty is a warm, lovely, and highly enjoyable book, whose plot movements’ fairy-tale predictability manages to be both rewarding and comforting. My only disappointment is in the not-so-shocking revelation at the end of the story that during her time with the Beast, Beauty has in fact grown into her nickname – though it’s the kind of thing I enjoyed when I was younger, here it seems like a bit of a concession, though one that McKinley combats, in a way, with her unconventional choice for the ending of Rose Daughter, which I won’t spoil here. Beauty is definitely one of the most successful and worthwhile fairy-tale retellings, and, like nearly all of McKinley’s work, worthy of being considered a modern classic of children’s and fantasy literature.