Donna Jo Napoli,
Beast
(Atheneum/Simon & Schuster, 2000)

Donna Jo Napoli uses an unusual setting and perspective to retell "Beauty and the Beast" in her new novel titled simply Beast.

The novel opens in Persia, and Prince Orasmyn, son of the Shah of all Persia, is preparing for a special feast day, the Feast of Sacrifices. He is a proud young man, proud of his rank, his scholarship, his piety and the beautiful gardens he has created with his own hands.

When called upon to make a difficult decision, Prince Orasmyn incurs the wrath of a wicked pari, a Persian fairy. The pari curses him, transforming him into a lion, the very beast the Shah has sworn to kill with his bare hands. Indeed, the pari foretells his death at his father's hands, a fate he manages to elude at the cost of losing his family.

Unable to live life as a lion among other lions, he journeys to France where he takes possession of an abandoned castle, rumored to be haunted. By raiding other gardens at night, he makes a rose garden flourish. One stormy night, a lost and weary traveler takes shelter in the castle, and next morning, breaks off a branch of rose blossoms. This action prompts the expected reaction of the beast: the extraction of the traveler's promise to send his youngest daughter, Belle, to the beast.

The young woman who arrives three weeks later is no child and no fragile cosseted maiden. She is frightened yet brave, strong and independent. She tends the garden and the house, carrying on with the preparations Prince Orasmyn began, once she realizes that the beast means her no harm.

Belle's presence is both agony and delight for Prince Orasmyn. The curse on him can only be lifted if a woman loves him as his is, in his beastly form. Therefore, he cannot tell her of his circumstances but must win her friendship and her love on his own. Still, he rejoices in her presence and cannot bear the thought of parting from her.

Napoli draws on a less well-known version of the tale as a departure point for her novel, a poem by Charles Lamb identifying the unfortunate beast as Prince Orasmyn of Persia. The narrative, told in first-person present from Prince Orasmyn's point of view, is stately and thoughtful, broken by the sharp contrast of episodes where the beast's nature overcomes princely inclinations. The prince's character growth is especially well developed as he adapts to a life lacking in privilege and to solving problems on his own. In addition, he faces and overcomes the beast within us all.

Like her other novels, Donna Jo Napoli's Beast provides substance and style with a fresh and original interpretation of an old familiar tale.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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