Top positive review
76 of 80 people found this helpful
surprisingly rich and full telling of a known story
on January 3, 2006
When _Rose Daughter_ came out, I was surprised. I read _Beauty_ when I was ten or eleven and loved it, and I wasn't sure how differently the same person could tell that story.
McKinley did an amazing job of it. First of all, you should know that _Rose Daughter_ is not a short book, or a quick book. If you're looking for a quick, light read for a younger reader, _Beauty_ remains a good choice--it's more interesting than the standard version by far, and it tends to stick with you.
It's not that she changes the story in this newer version--it's that she gives it a setting, and that the people have far, far more depth. The characters are clearly totally different people from their counterparts in _Beauty_, and the world is different, and it all progresses differently. (The ending, too, seems like she took seriously the joke we all made after watching Disney's final, slightly awkward, transformation--that he looked better as the Beast.) McKinley gives herself more room to maneuver in this version--rightly feeling that she's already told the story the simple way once. Don't get me wrong--it's not like she took the story and changed it, and that's what makes it interesting. The actual differences in simple plot are mostly unimportant. The famous story is more than a theme here. But it's like she looked at what might have really happened, had Beauty and the Beast really happened, to actual people--just in a different sort of world from ours.
The words are beautiful; the imagery is amazingly detailed yet concise (here we see the full benefit of McKinley's practice as a children's writer). The characters are people, whom you'd like to meet (or not, where appropriate). She doesn't waste much time on proving that the Beast is really a handsome prince suitable for her heroine--she skips over that, and makes him a character. When he speaks, you feel like you can hear his voice. One of the best sections of the book describes his interest in painting. For just a moment, Beauty--and the Beast--are removed from the fatefull progression of the story, and you can see them as people, as they might have been if there weren't any enchantment at all. Suddenly it's easy to believe that they'd fall in love.
Another thing McKinley changes is the reason the Beast is a Beast. Without spoiling the story, it's not the usual simple answer of fairy-tale arrogance. He's not just a rude or cruel prince, the sort that no heroine ought to love but this one does anyway because she is so good that she improves him. He has his faults, but he's not annoying, and the more interesting questions that come up have to do with what it actually means to be human. Which is quite an improvement. The book is romantic in an older sense (exciting and more than a little dramatic, especially when it comes to roses). There aren't any simpering scenes of clichéd storybook Disney Princess romance here. Beauty eventually realizes she's in love, and she does what she thinks she ought to do. If you want something to goo over, go back and read the section about the roses again (well, any of the sections). The traditional, romantic tale becomes a framework for something more complex--like writing in really detailed illustrations where all the gaps in the simple text are filled in with the expressions on people's faces and all the things going on in the background. Fairy tales are never much more than an outline. This time, the rest of it--what they ate for breakfast, the random friends and acquaintences and teacups/carpets/neighbors/histories are all there, and all of them interesting. It's the difference between publishing the novelization of a story and taking a story as the starting point, then going and writing a novel.
I wish people hadn't thrown _Rose Daughter_ into the "young adult" category at all, because it really isn't that kind of book. It's more suitable for adults, or teenage readers who would normally be looking for something more literary than your standard juvenille fantasy story about dragons and princesses. Basically, _Rose Daughter_ is _Beauty_ for an audience that wants their fairy tales to be not just engaging and memorable but creative and unique, full of wordplay and a narrative style that goes beyond entertainment.
The characters are complex and believable, despite their strange, allegorical names and seemingly (until you know them better) cartoonish characteristics. The first chapter or so is odd, and some readers may be lost at the begining, unable to get into the story and unwilling to continue. But this is unusually rich writing, and beautifully done. The gimmicks fade as you start to realize exactly how skillfully she's constructed the system of names--by the second or third chapter, you've forgotten that there's anything strange about a woman known as "Beauty." It may be a different world, one that we never fully see (what cities? what countries?), but it quickly starts to feel natural, in a way that is quite rare for fantasy of any kind.
I have read few books with such amazingly well-sketched "minor" characters. One of the things that--on re-reading--seems to be lacking from _Beauty_ (and any other version of Beauty and the Beast that comes to mind) is any kind of real personality among Beauty's family. Disney omitted the sisters to save space, and most stories marginalize them as stereotypes. McKinley correctly asks how and why relationships change as the story progresses, and it makes all the difference. And it lengthens the book a good deal (thank goodness! in my opinion, because I didn't want it to end), but the depth of description in this novel is truly wonderful. The whole time you feel like you're right there, in the story--something that's hard to accomplish with such a well-known fairy tale. McKinley shows us that maybe we didn't already know all there was to know about this story, after all. Beauty and the Beast is not the kind of story that lends itself to the creation of a world, instead of the crafting of a parable--but on her second try, McKinley goes far beyond the story itself. If you've ever watched the Disney version and wished you could find out more about the villagers, because they seem more interesting than they're given credit for, this telling does just that.
The only downsides--in my opinion--are when she feels obliged to return to the traditional plot, and we suddenly have a villain and an explanation tossed in. They disrupt everything, and are hardly necessary. The story could have just been allowed to happen--it feels real enough to work that way. I gave it five stars anyway because I think it's still a really exceptional work, from a literary point of view. Everything that McKinley does in this book that ISN'T the story of Beauty and the Beast is absolutely phenomenal. Somehow a lot of fantasy writers seem to have forgotten that taking on a traditional story provides an opportunity to work with other aspects of the writing instead of just trying to find a unique plot. _Rose Daughter_ ends up being marvelous because McKinley looks at it as the potential for a world--one where strange names and incomprehensible enchantments make sense--instead of as a writing exercize, or her chance to put her "stamp" on a particular story. This book goes far beyond that.
In short, if you're looking for a traditional fantasy telling of a novelized fairy tale, perhaps you should look somewhere else. If you're looking for an unusually rich, complex, and unique work of fiction, and have the patience to enjoy it, _Rose Daughter_ is just about perfect.