McKinley, Robin. (1978). Beauty: A retelling of the story of Beauty & the Beast. New York, NY: Harper Trophy.
Plot Summary: Her nickname “Beauty” has never made sense to her. She is the youngest and “plainest” of three daughters and is more interested in books and academics than anything else in 18th century English society. Beauty and her two sisters, Grace and Hope, live with their wealthy father in the city and have enjoyed a comfortable and privileged life for many years. After a tragic turn of events, Beauty and her family are forced to find refuge and a new way of living far out in the small country town of Blue Hill, where magic and myths are still as strong as ever. When her father comes home one day and tells a story of an enchanted castle, beautiful roses, and a horrifying beast it is up to Beauty to save her father from his terrible fate. Stubborn and determined as any sixteen-year-old, Beauty takes the place of her father as the Beast’s captive only to find that the castle and the Beast are more than what she could have ever imagined.
Critical Analysis: Regarded by Publisher’s Weekly as “A splendid story” and considered “A captivating novel” by ALA Booklist, Robin McKinley’s 1978 novel, Beauty: A retelling of the story of Beauty and the Beast proves that even the oldest of fairy tales can be as enchanting as ever. The book has an average rating of 4 out of 5 stars from the site Goodreads, and 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon. According to Grace on Goodreads, “The charm of this novel isn't in its creativity with or spin on the fairy tale, but in the way that Robin McKinley tells such a classic story in such a straightforward way, and yet still manages to make it delightful and fresh.” McKinley doesn’t reinvent the wheel with her retelling, but the story is beautifully written in its simplistic plot and carefully detailed setting. Shelley D. Chastagner from Amazon writes “Robin McKinley does a superior job of weaving breath taking descriptions, lovable characters and humor into this superb book.”
McKinley’s careful attention to character development and setting allows the reader to develop a connection to Beauty and her family. The clothes, dialogue, and daily routine of Beauty’s family is perfectly matched with the timeline of the story - as well as ways of communication and survival during 18th century England. The circumstances surrounding her family’s tragic fall from high society is sad, yet the courage and strength they find in each other is heartfelt, genuine, and even encouraging. The story development progresses smoothly from part to part and the magical elements in the story are mostly believable. However, I suppose that invisible servants that feel like gusts of wind are more plausible than talking furniture. Thankfully, the fixtures and furnishings do not talk – yet only move about to fulfill their orders from Beauty or the Beast. Even these “servants” become likeable throughout Beauty’s stay in the castle once she’s able to hear their voices and arguments over her importance and clothing choices. Although the plot and eventual ending is predicable, there are a few twists that make McKinley’s novel fresh and distinctive. For example, a magician (instead of a witch) is the one responsible for casting the spell on the young prince, his servants, and the castle. In addition, Beauty can dream about her family in real-time. The Beast can also send dreams about how Beauty is doing at the castle to her father in order to comfort him. The author does a good job of unfolding the mystery of the castle and its master throughout Beauty’s time with the Beast and even gives a little foreshadowing to what the Beast looks like when Beauty is drawn to a portrait of a young prince in one of the castle halls.
The story is told through Beauty’s point of view, which allows the reader to see and experience everything through her eyes. This has its advantages and disadvantages. It would have been very interesting to see the Beast’s point of view at some point in the story. It would have given the Beast’s character a little more depth. Beauty is a strong and courageous young girl, but her one failing characteristic is her insecurity. This is not because she is negative in regards to her appearance, but in the fact that she almost takes offense to anyone who might find her even remotely attractive. Often times, she comes off as whiny and annoying because she is so admit that she is not pretty. When the prince transforms at the end of the story, Beauty decides she will not marry him after all because he should be with a beautiful queen and not a “dull drab little nothing.” (p. 241). On the other hand, the Beast is a likeable and charming character that, despite his appearance, could easily be loved. He is kind, honest, caring, and even patient. He does everything in his power to make Beauty happy and comfortable. He even makes sure her family is doing well. This is evident when he states, “I have watched them many hours, since your father rode home alone. They have grown very dear to me, perhaps for your sake; and I have watched to see that they were well” (p. 198). Beauty’s feelings towards the Beast develop slowly and her affection eventually turns from friendship to love.
The novel is intended for junior high readers in grades 6 – 8; however, the book can easily be enjoyed by adults as well. Anyone who loves a good retelling of a classic fairy tale will not be disappointed.