Book Review: ‘Beauty’ by Robin McKinley

This original retelling of Beauty and the Beast really deserves the title of ‘classic’. McKinley’s novel was first published in 1978, and has been well-loved by tween and teen girls ever since. When I was eleven, my favourite babysitter gave me a copy – and told me that she and her two best friends all loved the book. I read and reread it countless times throughout my teens, and now my daughter is enjoying it as well, making three generations of enthusiastic fans. 🙂

The main character’s name is Honour – Beauty is a nickname her loving father gave her. The story tells the same old French folktale that we all know (in English), but we are treated, at last, to the details! Indeed, the author’s talent for enjoyable descriptions is really the best part of this book. The places and people are believable and likeable, and young women will surely identify with the main character, who loves horses (especially her own horse, Greatheart), prefers books to high society, and relishes the pleasures of a simple life (albeit one touched by rather magical events).

There are several reasons that I particularly like this book for young women of today:

  • While Beauty is dissatisfied with her own appearance, and reluctant to believe her kind relatives’ encouraging words on the topic, this is something that she grows out of by the end of the story. The whole ‘crisis’ is treated as a phase – not an insurmountable problem – and the reader can enjoy a satisfying happy ending.
  • Beauty copes with the challenges in her life in a healthy way. No lying, sneaking, or drastic behaviours mar the story or her character. She copes with her insecurities the best she can by distracting herself with literature, studies, horse-riding, and helping her family with daily activities.
  • There is no ‘catastrophe’ that ‘ruins her life’ or challenges Beauty to a practically superhuman performance, as is found in so many darker young adult novels in print at the moment. Which is not to say that there is no drama or action. But somehow, the events in the book are all at the right level – challenging and ‘special’, but believable and manageable (even for sensitive readers).
  • Beauty’s love for the Beast is the real magic of the story. The other magical elements of the tale are subtle and entertaining, and do not encourage or tempt the reader to muck about in any kind of ‘witchy’ activities.

And there are a few good reasons why this book is particularly well-suited to homeschoolers:

  • ‘Beauty’ is set in an imaginary time in place that could be medieval Europe, when young women did not go to institutionalized schools. Beauty’s education is something she enjoys on her own, and that does not involve a school or peers.
  • Beauty’s life does not revolve around ‘friends’. She spends her days with her family –and her horse! The intrigues of gossip, social gatherings, and so forth are not part of this book. Instead, Beauty’s own world of simple family relationships and activities combine to make a rich and satisfactory atmosphere. And of course, the fairytale romance with the Beast (which is mainly a friendship until the end of the book, leaving much to the imagination).

If you – or a friend – are looking for an excellent new book to turn to again and again, this just might be the one!

Note: Some of Robin McKinley’s books are quite different from this one – this review is enthusiastic about this particular book, and not her entire collection of work.

Here is the description from Amazon:

This much-loved retelling of the classic French tale Beauty and the Beast elicits the familiar magical charm, but is more believable and complex than the traditional story. In this version, Beauty is not as beautiful as her older sisters, who are both lovely and kind. Here, in fact, Beauty has no confidence in her appearance but takes pride in her own intelligence, her love of learning and books, and her talent in riding. She is the most competent of the three sisters, which proves essential when they are forced to retire to the country because of their father’s financial ruin.

The plot follows that of the renowned legend: Beauty selflessly agrees to inhabit the Beast’s castle to spare her father’s life. Beauty’s gradual acceptance of the Beast and the couple’s deepening trust and affection are amplified in novel form. Robin McKinley’s writing has the flavor of another century, and Beauty heightens the authenticity as a reliable and competent narrator.

This was McKinley’s first book, written almost 20 years ago. Since that time she has been awarded the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown and has delighted her fans with another retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fable, Rose Daughter. Still, McKinley’s first novel has a special place in the hearts of her devoted readers, many of whom attest to relishing Beauty time and again. (Ages 11 to Adult)

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