Book Simple: Beauty and the Beast (of a Dissertation)
a life-in-books by Amy Brown
My boyfriend won’t stop playing the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack. You know, the musical created from the rather alarmingly anthropomorphic 1991 Disney movie? That I listened to every nerdy afternoon of my exceedingly nerdy adolescence? You’ve never heard the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack? You must not have been a 13-year-old girl with a martyr complex/daddy issues in 1994.
About fifteen years ago, I would wander home from middle school, simultaneously fantasizing about chastely kissing Jean-Luc Picard when I grew up to be the chief medical officer of the Enterprise, and humming tunelessly along to my Walkman about rejecting the village beefcake in favor of books and wedding an overgrown pet cat that can talk. (That is, of course until, the deeply disappointing end when the Beast changes back into an insipid blond prince. Oh, spoiler alert, sorry.)
Yes, I know. It’s amazing that I was a virgin until after college.
I’d forgotten about this charming component of my childhood until one fateful evening, stumbling back to the apartment after an obscene amount of Sapporo and sake, the boyfriend started serenading Burbank with the strains of “Belle”. Why does he know the song? Don’t ask.
Even then, I could have kept my secret except that he forgot the words, so I had to chime in where the villagers begin singing. “This bread – these fish – it’s stale! – they stink! – Madam’s mistaken,” the townspeople bellow, and Belle cries out, “There must be more than this provincial life!” It’s the universal cry of the suburban teenager, and I can’t understand why today’s children rebel by playing the hip hop music instead of the superb strains of Alan Menken.
Anyway, the boyfriend thought this was so funny that he’s played the soundtrack every time we’ve been in the car since then, and to be honest, many of the songs are quite the earworm, to borrow a phrase from the German. So I’ll be typing away at my dissertation (and by dissertation, I mean Facebook) and find myself mumbling to myself: “Long ago I should have seen/ all the things I could have been;/ careless and unthinking I moved ONWARDS!” Let me tell you, this is not the way to endear yourself to officemates.
What does this have to do with books? Well, I’m trying to take a break from reading anything of any substance until I’ve finished my dissertation, as I’m supposed to be reading papers with names like “Financial Autarky and International Business Cycles” instead. So the latest reads tend to be like that, and I’m guessing you want to hear about them about as much as I want to read them.
Casting about my shelves for a book to discuss this week, I came across my copy of Beauty: a Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, the novel by Robin McKinley that came out in 1978. My sister gave me my copy at about the same time I was overdosing on Disney music, and I found it equally comforting. The novel is narrated by Honor, a young woman whose nickname, Beauty, has stuck through her awkward adolescence. She’s bookish, funny, and utterly uninterested in boys. Her two older sisters manage all the requirements of their wealthy life with charm, kindness and grace, irritatingly enough. When her father’s ships are lost at sea, Beauty moves with her family to the edge of a forest, believed by the locals to be enchanted. One stormy night, Beauty’s father returns from a trip to the city carrying a single rose. If the story begins to sound familiar here, well, I told you the title.
Her father found shelter during the storm in a magic castle, and upon leaving, plucks a rose from the rich gardens as a gift for his youngest daughter. This provokes the rage of the castle’s owner, a hideous Beast, who threatens to kill the thief unless he sends his daughter in exchange. “Your daughter would take no harm from me, nor from anything that lives in my lands … she must come of her own free will, because she loves you enough to want to spare your life – and is courageous enough to accept the price of being separated from you, and from everything she knows. On no other condition will I have her.”
Our heroine goes to the Beast despite her family’s protests. Her sisters (unlike those selfish bitches in the traditional version of the tale) also volunteer, but both have managed to set down roots in the village more deeply than their younger sister. One has a husband and children, the other a fiancé. Besides, as Beauty points out, the Beast “cannot be so bad if he loves roses so much.”
Beauty’s sacrifice leads to an astonishing friendship with this “honourable Beast,” whose magic includes visionary dreams and a library full of books that don’t yet exist. As she learns more, Beauty finds that the Beast “was not the awful master here, but [a] friend and companion within the spellbound castle. He too had had to learn to find his way through the maze of rooms and corridors that now bewildered [her]; he had had to learn to cope with enchantments in unfamiliar languages.” The quiet tone, crisp description and the way Beauty learns to clear her vision of expectations have caused me to return to McKinley’s novel many times even after my years of alienated adolescence.
Fairy tales contain lessons, of course, and Beauty and the Beast’s is a simple one: when you meet people, don’t judge them by appearances. But what I like about the adaption Beauty is that the prize of the tale isn’t just the wedding to the rich, handsome husband, but rather the understanding and freedom that Beauty gains through her life with the Beast. The novel suggests that the ugly bits are sometimes the best parts of life in disguise. Which is, of course, what I’m hoping about my dissertation.
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