I’ve read Beauty: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast seven times now in the last decade after I first discovered Robin McKinley’s adaptations. It’s incredibly rare for me to reread a book but what usually does the trick is the voice.
When a book has great voice, it means the author understands the role of a narrator and lets said narrator do his or her job. In this book, it’s not an easy feat as McKinley brings Beauty and the Beast into the modern world by giving the tale contemporary relevance about feminine capability while simultaneously preserving the magical essence of what makes a fairy tale, a fairy tale.
That type of massive responsibility requires a narrator to have a certain strength. One who can handle the pressure and deftly pull off a flawless weaving of old and new. And so, quite fitting, McKinley chose her story’s protagonist, the eponymous Beauty.
In the now-story, Beauty has the character qualities necessary to narrate but is ultimately too wide-eyed to yet handle that responsibility. Post-story, Beauty settles into her new maturity, gaining perspective and wisdom. This Beauty is the one who is fully prepared to share the tale we can read today.
Because Beauty has the wherewithal to narrate her own story, we clearly hear her remarkable voice. It captures the reader from the first sentence and doesn’t let go even after the story’s conclusion. Her voice is so integral to the story, that if, as the narrator, she was removed, McKinley’s hard work of incorporating key elements from both de Villaneuve and de Beaumont’s original tales into her own rendition would fall flat.
And so, post-story narrator Beauty is fully equipped to effectively blend her post- and now-story perspectives. Her voice elevates the story’s complexity and depth into a timeless tale that is just as fresh and enchanting as the originals.
*This review contains spoilers for the purposes of helping aspiring authors master writing craft.*
What the Book is about:
Unless you have read Beauty, and at that, recently, please do not skip this section. My synopsis is more detailed than the publisher’s to make sure you can understand later parts of my review:
Beauty has never appreciated her nickname, despite inadvertently giving herself the title many years before. She believes herself to be the plainest in her family and escapes into a world of books.
After her father’s merchant business goes bankrupt when his four merchant ships are either lost or destroyed in a storm, her family is forced to leave their city life for a simpler one inland. Beauty finds herself up for the change, despite the superstitions of wild magic up north.
For two years, their life is surprisingly quiet until her father receives a letter from a former business associate, informing him of the return of one of his lost ships. He ventures back to the city to tie up business ends. He becomes lost on his return journey home, but finally arrives, shaken.
When he shares the horrific tale of promising a Beast a life as the cost for a single rose, Beauty finds herself determined to go in her father’s stead. Entering the castle and taming the Beast prove to be a far more surprising adventure than what she ever expected.
Narrator & Point of View:
As mentioned before, Beauty is both the narrator and the protagonist of the story. When this happens, the point of view is called Central First Person, because the narrator is also the central character in the story and tells the story from an “I” perspective. She tells the story in the past tense.
Beauty happens to be a little unreliable in her narration. Typically, any narrator’s unreliability evokes reader distrust. In this story, she is unreliable about two topics, which actually builds trust and credibility in the post-story Beauty and the lessons she has learned.
First, her unreliable narration about now-story Beauty’s view of her physical appearance shows the reader self-perception plays a significant factor in one’s own capability in life.
Second, her unreliable narration about two events’ length of passed time are inconsistent. While seemingly small, or even viewed as a sloppy error, her fuzziness about time supports thematic resonance, as it represents the weighty importance of focusing on the core of a matter, rather than time-passed superfluous details. For example, is it really that important knowing exactly how long her father had been gone, or the fact that he had been gone at all?
Note: for those of you curious, I estimate ten years distance in time has passed between now-story Beauty and post-story narrator Beauty.
Voice (Personality) &
Narrator Beauty’s voice exudes vibrant pragmatism. This comes from her dreamer yet realist personality. Thus, her words are rich and colorful, prompted by the dreamer inside her, yet entirely metered by her sensible perspective.
But voice only goes so far without tone. Through the use of long, varied sentence structures, paired with Beauty’s literary references and an astute vocabulary, her voice has an intellectually intimate and conversational tone. The complicated sentence structures give the tone an important and slightly formal feel. Structuring those sentences in long Scenes* and long chapters, round out the tone with a historical quality.
*Note: The capital “S” stands for the two components that create a Scene: the “scene/action” unit and the “sequel/reaction” unit.
Beauty learns that her character—including how she views and treats herself—is what matters most. When she operates in this mentality, physical appearance has little impact on her view of her capability.
Worldbuilding & Setting:
Narrator Beauty shares details about the story’s three major settings that are only relevant to her worldview. She chooses details that guide, but not forcibly construct, the reader’s mental picture of her world.
The story begins with a sea-side city, switches to a small, northern-forested village and then ends at an enchanted castle.
She is overtly non-specific about her story’s time period; the reader learns it occurs quite far in the past, though, through references to literature, her grandfather and father’s occupations, and clothing styles.
Her non-specificity is appropriate for two reasons. In traditional fairy tales, the time period is never stated and inherently known to be long before the reader’s own present time. This contemporary reconstruction follows suit.
It would also be outside Beauty’s personality to mention the year while she narrates. She is observant of abstract ideas, relationships, and people’s actions. Not so much the smaller details of the specificity of time or the changes in her physical appearance.
Again, narrator Beauty provides information about the story’s magic system in the same way the reader learns about the story’s world. The magic system is akin to the fairy tales of old, bolstered heavily by superstitions and tales.
With this element, McKinley actually stepped in to utilize narrator Beauty to foreshadow the story’s enchantment. She maximized Beauty’s intellect to smartly phrase key words, while emphasizing the dreamer side of her personality to ensure the foreshadowing is heavy handed.
We learn that in the city, magic is on the cusp of fading into the rational industrial and intellectual aspects of modern living despite the persistent belief that the north is overrun with goblins, magicians, and dragons.
In the northern village, no goblins, magicians, or dragons are seen—but there are unusual occurrences that are quietly rationalized away. These occurrences seamlessly support the explanation about a great magician creating a powerful enchantment (including its resulting impact upon the natural world). Because the focus is on the magician’s powers, he is only spoken about and never seen.
Within the enchanted castle grounds, a clever and logically-wearying idyll is presented, which tastefully bolsters thematic resonance. McKinley crafted even greater complexity to the enchantment’s layers, which unfold as narrator Beauty communicates now-story Beauty’s character arc progression.
While most of the magical details about the enchantment wrap up nicely at the end, there is one exception: Beauty's "handmaid."
Once you understand the role of a narrator, executing other aspects of your story become much easier. Not only does the narrator tell the story, he or she also influences everything else that gets put on the page.
I'd love to hear from you! Have you read this book? What can you apply about the narrator or voice in your own writing?
In the next post, we’ll explore a handful of Beauty's main characters. Stay tuned to learn more about Beauty, the Beast, her father and her "handmaid." Already read Part 2? Head over to Part 3, which explains how the narrator's pace affects various story elements.