I've been thinking about Beauty and the Beast a lot lately. The first reason has to do with books and libraries. Books have been some of my most valued possessions--sometimes individual books, but I really mean books as a whole. One of the most decadent things I can imagine is to have an entire room of one's home devoted to books, particularly if that room has maroon walls and dark wood shelving and a rolly ladder and a fireplace and a table and soft leather chairs and intricately-patterned carpets and tall, narrow windows that let strips of dusty sunlight angle down onto the floor.
I've never read a retelling of this story that doesn't place a great deal of importance on the Beast's library, and at least some time and effort into what comprises the contents, whether that's books out of time or something else. Is it because retellers envision the library as equivalent to paradise? Because the stories in the library are a convenient way to add layers of meaning? Because there's a whiff of apologizing to the reluctant bride that her husband may seem beastly, but he is learned and rich in knowledge? But we can come back to that.
I've also been thinking about Beauty and the Beast because a week or so ago, I got the worst haircut I've ever had. I've had iffy, so-so, and unflattering cuts, but I've never before had one that was so terrible. I saw that the cut had gone wrong early on, and decided to wait it out; after all, there was no fixing it. I find it freeing to not have to spend more than a few minutes on my hair (though short hair is said to come with a need for more makeup, and that's true for me), but the silhouette in the mirror, especially in low light, is not good for my self esteem. I don't have any deep revelations other than "It'll grow." But, I suppose, that's not the solution for a Beast.
Beastly by Alex Flinn (HarperCollins - HarperTeen) is an interesting retelling, though it doesn't break a lot of new ground in terms of story structure. The bones of "Beauty and the Beast" are all there: the taking of the young man's looks to punish him for arrogance; the ticking clock of death; the roses and libraries; the "animal husband" trope; Beauty's forced companionship; love that breaks the evil spell. A bratty, upper-class teen in NYC annoys a witch--who, in this version, doesn't make a Beast and run off entirely--and gets two years to live and plenty of excess body hair for his trouble. When a drug dealer breaks into the Beast's brownstone's backyard rose garden, Kyle, who's changed his name to Adrian (he had a reason for this, but I've forgotten why he thought the meaning was more appropriate, though all I find today are "from Hadrian" meanings; at any rate, he wanted a new name for his new outside), makes the dealer bring his daughter, Lindy, to stay at Adrian's. Madga, the maid, and Will, Adrian's tutor, round out the household.
I notice a variety of interesting things about this version. First, though the story is told entirely from the Beast's point of view, it's packaged very much like today's paranormal romances; I wonder if different packaging might have made this a "boy read." Published in 2007, the technology is a bit nostalgic, but several chats between the Beast and other star-crossed fairy tale characters are charming. The city setting also brings an update to the tale. I have looked at the movie tie-in cover but I don't think it's particularly exciting.
There are aspects that I like less in a modern setting, however, than I do in historical else-times. The Beauty character is forced into confinement, and I wondered why such a smart girl couldn't come up with other alternatives, particularly in terms of taking care of her father. I don't like a few moments where the Beast oversteps his bounds in a way reminiscent of Twilight's Edward in terms of restricting Beauty's movements. I don't like the moment when Beauty decides that the Beast is nice to her, and therefore not acting like a kidnapper; I don't know that there's a way of removing the creepiness of that in a modern setting.
And then there are all the elements that are worth considering; why this, not that? The evil witch is a "monster" because she's fat and ugly, but interestingly in terms of the Beast's personality and story, her "worst" traits may be that she's outspoken and uncharmable. The Beast fears a loss of status--and he's never met someone he couldn't buy--and so he falls quite hard, but it's a long time before he can accept that Beauty is beautiful within and that she's not any sort of different human being. Tutor Will is blind, reinforcing that what you see is not all there is, and while he would prefer to have his sight returned, he's able to enjoy life without it.
I tend to think that animal bridegroom stories dredge up what is largely a distant and unknowable situation for the readers of this book--that an evil, arranged husband isn't as bad a situation as you thought it would be, and that you can learn to love this person. That connects to the relief of being loved and cared for, warts and all. In that, there's the fairy tale that everything always turns out right, even though in real life, endings are much more uncertain.
My favorite part of the book is a realization I've had myself. Lindy observes: when you love someone, you see them not just with your eyes, but with yourself--they just look like themselves. Love means seeing people from the inside out rather than the outside in.