The best-known and best-loved of Robin McKinley's books is also one of the best of the fairy-tale retellings -- "Beauty," a more enlightened, fully-drawn version of "Beauty and the Beast." There's a depth and a richness to the story and characterizations, as well as a beauty of atmosphere and writing.
Beauty (real name is "Honour") is the ironically-named heroine of the story -- she isn't beautiful, but is very intelligent. She has two sisters, the beautiful Hope and Grace, and a benevolent, wealthy father. Then all their lives change suddenly: the ships their father owns are lost, and the money goes with them. One of the sisters marries a poor but worthy country lad, while the other lost her beloved fiancee who captained one of the ships. After selling their possessions the family moves to the countryside.
The father leaves on a trip -- and returns with a single rose, a gift for Beauty, which carries the price of either his life or his daughter. Beauty leaves to go live at the castle of the mysterious Beast, with only her plowhorse to accompany her. She arrives at a castle of invisible servants, magical books, friendly animals, and a melancholy Beast who asks her to marry him every evening...
There is nothing new in fairy tale retellings now, but when McKinley first wrote "Beauty," it was a relative rarity. And even now, few of them are as intelligently written and have such solid heroines. Rather than giving her story a contrived "twist," McKinley merely fleshes out the storyline and gives the characters personalities.
The writing is excellent; McKinley writes the more prosaic passages of cottage life and the surrounding friendly village, as well as the more dreamlike, fantastical scenes in the Beast's castle. Lots of atmosphere, either in the poor but warm surroundings of the house, or the eerie feel of the castle.The dialogue is nearly flawless: McKinley doesn't write ye-olde-formal prose, but the characters never sound -- or think -- like modern Americans.
Beauty is a great heroine -- brainy, kind, wry-humored, brave and strong. Though the "Beauty" element is discarded, it is done so with the apparent understanding that this "Beauty" has brains and guts rather than a pretty face. The Beast himself is a little more shadowy; we never get inside his head the way we do Beauty's, but then the book is hers, not his. Beauty's father and sisters are equally well-done, avoiding the cliches of nastiness in favor of being likable or haunted.
Robin McKinley's debut "Beauty" is still among the best-loved fairy-tale retellings. With the help of a gutsy, brainy heroine, it rises above a mere retelling and becomes THE retelling.