Monday, September 7, 2015

Rose Daughter

Rose Daughter
by Robin McKinley

Publisher's Blurb:
It is the heart of this place, and it is dying, says the Beast. And it is true; the center of the Beast's palace, the glittering glasshouse that brings Beauty both comfort and delight in her strange new environment, is filled with leafless brown rosebushes. But deep within this enchanted world, new life, at once subtle and strong, is about to awaken.
Twenty years ago, Robin McKinley dazzled readers with the power of her novel Beauty. Now this extraordinarily gifted novelist returns to the story of Beauty and the Beast with a fresh perspective, ingenuity, and mature insight. With Rose Daughter, she presents her finest and most deeply felt work--a compelling, richly imagined, and haunting exploration of the transformative power of love.

My Reaction:
I remember reading this author's earlier novelization of the "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale (Beauty)-- either in middle or high school.  Whenever it was, it left a very positive impression, so I was excited to read another re-telling of the tale, curious about what new spin she might put on things.  It's been so long since I read Beauty that I don't have many definite memories from it (time for a re-read, soon), so I can't make strong comparisons between that novel and this one-- but I'm almost positive that Beauty was far superior to Rose Daughter.

If you're only going to read one, I'd suggest Beauty.  If you're a huge fan of all things B&tB, maybe they're both worth a read.  (But don't go in expecting a tightly plotted page-turner or you'll be disappointed.)

Details (with SPOILERS):
-- My main complaint with this novel is that it drags.  (Some parts had me literally nodding off to sleep!)

There's not enough conflict-- not enough of a driving force.  A few times, there are suggestions that something "big" might be coming up (references to "the curse", for instance), but all too quickly, any hint of drama or excitement fades away.  There are no high stakes-- particularly after Beauty has been living in the Beast's castle for a couple of days.  By then, she knows she's not in any danger from him.  She misses her family, but... Well, honestly, that's kind of boring to read about, after a while.  Besides, she sees them in visions every night, so it's hard for the reader to miss them, even if Beauty does.  (I actually resented their constant intrusion into the story.  How are we and Beauty supposed to get to know the Beast when she spends most of her time either alone in the glasshouse or asleep, dreaming about her sisters?!)

When one of the heroine's biggest problems is finding a source for compost, you know the book's not quite edge-of-your-seat reading.  I mean, I'm keenly interested in gardening right now, and even I found myself tapping my foot with impatience, at some points.

There is never a real, solid enemy, or at least not one who lasts long enough to build up a feeling of dread.  There's the Beast, but of course he turns out to be harmless.  There's the young local nobleman (or whatever he is) who wants to marry Jeweltongue (and tries to cause trouble for her family because she rejects his offer)-- but we hardly see him, and he, too, is almost immediately said to be unable to inflict serious harm.  The most dangerous foe is the wicked sorcerer (Strix?), but apparently he's gone, too.  Even his vengeful spells hover in the distance; they never feel like a serious threat.

-- Then there's the romance (or lack thereof).  "Beauty and the Beast" should always (imho) be a romantic tale.  It's the essence of the story-- that love can exist against all odds.  Fear/hatred turning into understanding; compassion growing into companionship; friendship finally blossoming into love.   But for this startling reversal (from fear to love) to feel genuine, we need to see the characters together more than a handful of times.

This retelling was far to stingy with interactions between the Beast and Beauty.  I'd have happily traded in some of the "other stuff" (animals returning, gardening talk, dreams of her family, descriptions of the castle and Beauty's clothes) for more dialog between the Beast and Beauty.  As it is, it's not easy to care whether they end up together or not.  Beauty is a little too perfect, and as for the Beast, we hardly get to know him!  He doesn't feel real.

-- The author can write prettily.  Sometimes that's enough to hold my attention, but at other times, it feels like rambling.  No series of pretty pictures or fascinating symbols, no amount of interesting contemplation can make up for a lack of plot or dialog.

--  Beauty praises the spider's "most radiant and well-composed web".  Definite Easter egg-ish reference to Charlotte's Web, right?

--  I don't care for the fact that, in this version, the Beast hadn't really done anything to deserve being turned into a Beast.  He made the mistake of going too far in his (~yawn~) pursuit of "philosophy".  Oh, and he told a wicked sorcerer that he "believed magic to be a false discipline, leading only to disaster".   :o/  Another anticlimactic moment.

--  Almost the only suspenseful part of the book comes when Beauty (mysteriously) doesn't remember the Beast's warning about the rose and his impending death as a result of her prolonged absence.  When she finally remembers and manages to get back to the Beast's castle (after the detour to the garden at Rose Cottage), her forward momentum slows to an agonizing crawl.  Ugh!  That whole scene!  Endlessly wandering here and there!  It took forever to read.

-- When we finally get all the explanation that we're going to get, in the form of a disembodied voice in Beauty's head (...snore...), it leaves too much unexplained.  For instance, who was Beauty's mother?  Strix's daughter (or grand-daughter) by one of his mistresses?  ...So, the Beast exiled himself?

-- Then there's the book's biggest twist on the fairy tale:  Instead of returning to his human form upon Beauty's declaration of love, the Beast stays a beast.  It's Beauty's choice, ultimately, and she'd rather live a normal(ish), cozy, mortal life with the Beast in his beastly shape than live a much different, grander, stranger life with the Beast as a handsome, wealthy, powerful philosopher-sorcerer.

I have mixed feelings about this twist.  On the one hand, it always felt odd for Beauty to finally realize she loves the Beast, only to have him change into a complete stranger (physically, at least).  However, the whole point of the story is that she loves him for his personality/heart/spirit/soul, no matter what his appearance.  (You can't judge a book by its cover, etc.)  Also, in the original tale, the Beast is only a Beast because he's being "punished"/taught a lesson for his bad past behavior.  The fact that Beauty loves him demonstrates that he's grown as a person, and his change for the better is rewarded by the breaking of the spell.

In this version, he hasn't really done anything very wrong, so he's not being punished...

However, I'm confused as to why the Beast in his beastly form would behave differently from the Beast in human form.  Why would he be any different as a man than as a beast?  Couldn't he be wealthy and powerful and still be the same good "person" he would be as a beast living at Rose Cottage?  If not-- if his goodness/personality is somehow tied to his physical form... Doesn't that basically fly right in the face of the usual moral of the story?

Why couldn't the Beast return to his human form, but decide to give away all (or at least most) of his earthly possessions to those who needed them, then "disappear" to the relative obscurity of life at Rose Cottage?  Let's be honest; this was just a silly, convoluted excuse for Beauty to live happily ever after with the Beast in beast-form.  (...Is Beauty a furry? ~shudder~)

-- So, ok.  The Beast comes to Rose Cottage-- still in his beast shape-- and everyone is just okay with it?  ...But... I thought the reason he exiled himself was that he was so terrible to look upon.  No animals (except Fourpaws) could bear to be near him, and people weren't too crazy about him, either.  I guess we're supposed to accept the idea that Beauty's love has made him somehow less horrific-looking.  I'm not buying it.

--  The Beast is happily making plans for repairs he'll make to the house and bed (???), but I thought he lacked the dexterity even to eat "like a man".  Of course, though he can't wield knife and fork, he somehow manages to use a paintbrush for his amazing mural on the roof, so I guess consistency in this matter was deemed unnecessary.

--  The author's note includes a mention that the book "shot out onto the page in about six months", which apparently was an extraordinarily brief amount of time.  Interestingly, the author of the last "retelling" I read (Jane, by April Lindner), made a similar comment in a note to her readers.  It seems like a strange, almost boastful remark (one probably best left unwritten) that invites the less charitable among us to consider how much better the book might have been if speediness wasn't considered a virtue...  Only a thought!

-- Positives:  I liked the first part of the book fairly well.  The fact that the sisters actually do things is appealing.  As I mentioned before, I'm thinking a lot about gardening, these days, so I liked that element of the book.  The animals (particularly the dog and cat) are sweet additions to the cast.  Some of the prose and word pictures are quite pretty.