When I was back east visiting my family last week, a dear family friend gave me a few books by Robin McKinley as a belated birthday present. While we were discussing in what order I should read them, she mentioned this book, Beauty, which she had given me years ago for another birthday. I couldn’t remember what I’d done with my copy, but it turns out, my mother had borrowed it then stuck it on her own shelf (a habit both of us have, much to our mutual dismay!) so I pulled it out and tossed it into my suitcase.
The friend who had gifted me these books dearly loves the story of Beauty and the Beast, and although I’m not positive she knew this when she gave the book to me, it’s also my favorite fairy tale. As a child, it was the only Disney movie I could stand, and as I got older, I sought out other retellings. Without a doubt, this is the best one I’ve found so far, although I’ve discovered in my questing that there are infinite versions of the story, and there may well be one out in the world I will enjoy more.
One of the qualities I most love about McKinley though is her ability to write books intended for a young audience that are also enjoyable for an older one. I could easily have read this book when I was ten and loved it, and twenty years later, I envy her talent in creating such a richly textured world for this familiar tale.
During this reading, I was especially drawn to the home she creates for Beauty and her family in the countryside. It’s warm and cozy – a cheerfulness that comes from a combination of hard work and being surrounded by family pervades this section – and when Beauty leaves it behind to live in the Beast’s much grander castle, I found myself entrenched in a melancholy I couldn’t shake. For all the exquisite gardens, gowns, and food, even for his library holding every book ever written (even those not penned yet), I found myself longing for her to return to her old, simple life. Why couldn’t the Beast join her family there, leaving the castle behind for village life? Why couldn’t the tidy wrap-up leave them chopping wood together, or tending to the vegetable garden? Why is it happily ever after could only take place with such extravagant wealth shrouding the couple?
While I’m not saying money can’t buy any happiness at all (I have seen the misery of financial hardship), I find that a happy life engaged in joyful work is much more satisfying to me than an easy life where a person has nothing but time to think about his or her problems. It also just seems dull, the perfection McKinley describes – Beauty’s days in the castle, spent riding and reading and changing clothes, would grow dull after a while. It’s like a vacation that will never end, and yet what makes a vacation really wonderful is its contrast to daily life.
I don’t remember feeling this way when I read this book years ago, but as an adult, the lives I most admire are those of friends who know how to cook everything, who eat from their own gardens, who home school ingeniously, and who seem to be able to mend anything and everything in a pinch. This is the life Beauty leaves for the Beast, and I just find myself wondering if they wouldn’t both be happier returning to that, together…
You can find the most up-to-date information about Robin McKinley at her blog, http://robinmckinleysblog.com/