Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Beast

Beauty and the Beast has always been my favorite fairy tale.  One of my first memories of Erica, so many years ago, is her recommending Beauty by Robin McKinley for me to read.  I’m glad I took her advice, because that book soon moved to my favorites list.  I was captivated by the writing, yes, but also by the romance, by the simple humanity of the eponymous character who believes that she is undeserving of her name.  I read McKinley’s other B&TB adaptation, Rose Daughter, and enjoyed it, but not nearly so much.  The breathtaking prose was still there, but the striking appeal of the characters was not.

What had been missing from my collection was the other perspective.  What about the Beast?  What was his story?  Beast, by Donna Jo Napoli, gives a possible answer to this question.

It would be difficult to imagine a writing style more different from McKinley’s that tells a story that is the other side of the same coin.  Napoli’s prose is in the present tense, which adds a sense of immediacy and closeness to the story.  After the first few chapters describing the main character’s life as a Persian prince, there is nothing flowery (pardon the pun) about the writing.  We see Orasmyn’s (for that is his name) life after he is transformed into a lion and all of the harsh, brutal realities he must face.  From Persia, he travels to India, then to France.  The landscape is alternately savage and beautiful.

I suppose I should say ‘spoiler alert’ here, but who doesn’t know how the basic story goes?  I disliked the abruptness of the ending; the spell is broken on literally the last page.  I don’t mind that we don’t meet Belle until the last quarter of the story because this isn’t her book, it’s the Beast’s, but her character comes off flat and unappealing.  Her interest in the Beast seems less romantic than desperate.  The Beast, by contrast, is a fully realized character who must grapple with what it means to be human.  His disgust at his carnal impulses and attempts to master them were fascinating for me.  After all, one of his first acts as a lion is to… well, to mate with a lioness.  So it seems only natural that he begins to view Belle as… meat.  In the hands of a lesser author, this angle might seem tacky or in poor taste, but Napoli makes it seem very realistic.  The author also infuses heavy amounts of culture and religion into the story, which may be appealing for some or off-putting to others.  I thought it made the setting more realistic, but that it could have been used in less frequent doses (the first few chapters of the book use Persian words in almost every paragraph).

My criticisms of the book should be taken with a grain of salt since I raced through this book in just over a day.  It’s a thoroughly compelling read, especially for fans of the fairytale.  Although Beast can’t compare to McKinley’s Beauty, in my mind at least, it deserves a spot on the same shelf.


Anonymous said...

It's got me curious about McKinley's Beauty!

And I have to agree with you about writing in present tense - there is a sense of immediacy.


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