Nancy Holder,
(Simon Pulse, 2004)

It is a pity that Nancy Holder's Spirited is set in 1756, a good 30 years before Jane Austen wrote, "Beware of fainting-fits ... Though at the time they may be refreshing and agreeable yet believe me they will in the end, if too often repeated and at improper seasons, prove destructive to your Constitution."

Isabella Stevens, Holder's less than intrepid heroine, could benefit by such excellent advice. She spends the majority of the novel either screaming or fainting and awaiting rescue from her tall, dark, handsome and brooding captor. Oh dear.

Spirited attempts to be a romantic, historically set fairy-tale retelling. What it is, though, is a tamed bodice-ripper with an incongruously tasteful cover. As such, it is unlikely to appeal to anyone who picks it up expecting an insightful exploration of "Beauty & the Beast" or even a decent historical fantasy.

The few parallels that exist between Spirited and the fairy tale it retells are tenuous and oddly distorted. Isabella does offer to remain captive to Wusamequin's tribe in exchange for her father's freedom. However, she actually ends up staying because of a botched escape attempt in which she nearly impales herself upon a branch in the forest. If anything, Spirited uses the basic framework and fantasy of the fairy tale as an excuse for a bad romance with remarkably little awareness of its own absurdity. The fantasy elements are incorporated badly, making suspension of disbelief difficult, particularly in the ending scene, which unfolds with all the cheap flashiness of a B-grade horror flick.

Spirited works no better as historical fiction, though Holder has clearly done some research into Native American names and traditions, and Isabella's initial prejudice towards the natives as savages is understandable. However, the fairy-tale parallel that makes Wusamequin (the quintessential noble savage) the beast is a disheartening echo of colonial ideology. Holder's portrayal, while sympathetic, is not sensitive. It is both a surprise and a relief that she does refrain from completely vilifying either settlers or Native Americans.

Any redeeming value of the novel stems from the fact that Spirited can be genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. Holder's overwrought prose and tendency toward melodrama make many of Isabella's and Wusamequin's adventures unintentionally hilarious. Isabella and her appropriately tormented lover take themselves so seriously that they almost deserve each other. Still, it's difficult to recommend Spirited when there are so many books that succeed in what it fails, like Robin McKinley's two retellings of "Beauty & the Beast" and Jackie French Koller's YA colonial romance, The Primrose Way. The Once Upon a Time series is stylishly designed and occasionally charming, but Nancy Holder's Spirited is not amongst its better entries.

by Jennifer Mo
4 March 2006

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