Robin McKinley,
(HarperCollins, 1978)

Retelling old fairy tales with new twists seems to be one of the most lucrative writing ventures available at present. And while nothing can substitute for good writing, the success of Terri Windling's Fairy Tale series proves that the market is out there. Robin McKinley must have realized this years ago, as shown by her first novel, Beauty, a retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast. While the novel is well-written and fleshed out, there was nothing in it that shed new light on the story of a young woman kept in the Beast's castle until she agrees to marry him.

McKinley does, however, stray from the original fairy tale portrait of Beauty. In this version, Beauty was born the youngest of three sisters, respectively named Grace, Hope and Honour. At an early age, though, Beauty's precociousness earns her the nickname "Beauty," which sticks despite its apparent inappropriateness. Beauty would prefer reading Greek tragedies and riding horses to courting beaus, which helps her adjust to her new lifestyle once her father's merchant business goes under and the family is forced to move to the country. From here, of course, McKinley's tale follows the original, with few additions or embellishments.

Despite McKinley's adherence to the original story, Beauty is full of evocative descriptions and interesting tidbits. One of my favorites, however, was also one of the things that slightly irritated me about the novel. The Beast's library, full of magic, possessed thousands of books that hadn't even been written yet. But Beauty's penchant for King Arthur legends and Spenser's Fairy Queene seemed like too much an intrusion of the author's preferences.

The relationships among Beauty and her sisters and father are well-developed and believable, and the story, told from Beauty's point of view, possesses a strong narrative voice. Despite these characteristics, Beauty doesn't possess the originality of McKinley's second retelling of the original tale, Rose Daughter. Readers who are looking for retellings of fairy tales might want to read Beauty, especially if they are fans of McKinley's work, but her later attempts (Rose Daughter and Deerskin, to name a couple) deserve more attention.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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