Can a beast who loves roses so much be so very terrible?
It’s been years since I read and reviewed Robin McKinley’s Beauty, her first rendition of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. Despite the book’s popularity, I wasn’t particularly moved by it, and ended my review saying that I was looking forward to experiencing her second retelling of the same story, seeing how an author would approach the same material the second time around.
Well, it took me a while (though not as long as the twenty years between each book’s publication) but I’ve finally tracked down and read Rose Daughter. So how does it measure up with its predecessor? On the whole, I enjoyed it a lot more. The prose is more polished (insofar as I could recall Beauty) and the story itself more sophisticated in several ways, including an interesting variation on the Beast’s curse and a twist ending. What remains the same is the novel’s basic structure: after an elderly merchant’s business fails, he and his three beautiful daughters relocate to the countryside, far away from their old life of luxury.
But as with McKinley’s last retelling, Beauty is not saddled with two unpleasant sisters. Instead, the trio of girls make the most of their new life, and the love of family is what pulls them through their hardships. Beauty soon becomes enamoured with the strange thorny plants that fill the garden of their new home — though it’s not until spring that she realizes they’re roses. Years pass in happiness, but after a bad winter and news that one of their father’s ships has returned after being lost at sea, Beauty asks her father to bring her a rose in memory of the ones she’s missed that year.
Getting lost in a blizzard on the way back, her father arrives at a mysterious estate that provides him with food and shelter, though he sees no one. It is only on taking a rose from the breakfast table that the master of the house appears: a terrible beast who demands the merchant’s youngest daughter in retribution for his thievery. You know how the rest goes: Beauty arrives at the mansion, befriends the Beast, and the two start to fall in love despite appearances…
Yet McKinley has some intriguing spins in place to liven up the familiar tale. Whereas Beauty was a straightforward retelling of the Charles Perrault version of the fairytale, Rose Daughter is a bit more original. As with Beauty, a lot of time is spent on fleshing out the characters that make up Beauty’s family: not only her father, but also her sisters, who have more distinctive personalities this time around and are named Lionheart and Jeweltongue. Lionheart disguises herself as a boy in order to get a job as a stablehand, Jeweltongue discovers a propensity for needlework that gets her family through the harsh winters, and each has a loving relationship with her younger sister.
Furthermore, there is something of a mystery surrounding the family’s possession of Rose Cottage. Having once been lived in by an old woman and her young ward, the house was bequeathed to Beauty’s family after their disappearance, though no one seems to know why. With Beauty’s care, the roses bloom for the first time in years, and rumours that she might be a greenwitch start in the township. Old stories are dredged up, stories that provide contradictory accounts as to why magic cannot take root in the town since the previous occupants of Rose Cottage left.
These puzzles tie in with the enchantment laid over the Beast’s estate, as well as with the dream that has haunted Beauty since she was a child: that of a long passageway with a monster waiting at its end. Not all of these elements come to an entirely satisfying conclusion (rather than a slow unwinding of clues and revelations, the mysteries are resolved through several large info-dumps toward the end of the novel), but they certainly help create a deeper, more elaborate version of this traditional fairytale.
Mainly due to McKinley’s dreamy prose, Rose Daughter is also a far more whimsical retelling than Beauty, which I remember being quite grounded in reality despite its magical elements. But here, not only do we have names such as the Duke of Dauntless and the Baron of Grandiloquence, but also insight as to the nature and philosophy of magic. As aforementioned, it all gets a bit talky by the end, and the novel can also be too over-descriptive (every inch of the Beast’s home is described in loving detail, and since all those inches seem to be decorated with roses, it’s a wonder that Beauty doesn’t hate the sight of them by the end of the story).
But there’s a frustrating aspect that’s common to each version, one that I’d hoped McKinley would rectify the second time around. Although Beauty’s departure from her family is handled much better in Rose Daughter, I was still left cold by McKinley’s depiction of the romance between Beauty and the Beast — perhaps even more so here than I was the first time around. Once more, the bond between Beauty and her sisters is a thousand times more realistic and poignant than that which she fosters with the Beast, whose interactions with Beauty in Rose Daughter amount to only a handful of conversations over the course of a single week. If you asked me why these two fell in love with each other, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
Still, I enjoyed Rose Daughter, both as a companion-piece to Beauty and on its own merit. Though I often have difficulties with Robin McKinley’s books (much like Ursula le Guin, I recognize her talent, but for whatever reason have trouble connecting with her characters and stories on an emotional level), this was a pleasant and thought-provoking read, and comes complete with an insightful afterword in which McKinley explains her reasons for revisiting the fairytale.
I’ve read Rose Daughter, Robin McKinley’s second take on the Beauty and the Beast fable, twice, several years apart, but still have very mixed emotions about it. It’s slow-paced, it starts up with interesting ideas and then drops them, the magical part is and always has been confusing to me (for some reason that happens with a fair amount of frequency in Robin McKinley’s later books), and THE ENDING!?*@#! [Highlight to view spoiler:] I’ve just never been able to reconcile myself to Beauty being married to an actual beast. Wait, what? What will their kids look like? Could they even have kids? What will sleeping with him be like? O.o It’s a nice thought (that you love someone for who they are) but totally failed the Squickiness Test® for me.
And yet. I enjoyed the characters and relationships between the three sisters, I thought the animal scenes were delightful (McKinley is good with animals), and fairly frequently I read parts that struck me with their loveliness and reminded me of why I always read McKinley’s books, even when I find major parts of them rather frustrating. Her first novel Beauty is a simpler tale (and lacks the elements that make me grit my teeth) and is still my favorite of these two versions of the same fairy tale, but if you don’t mind a slower-paced tale and don’t feel any pressing need to have all of your questions answered, you may very well enjoy Rose Daughter.
I guess it says something about my mixed feelings for this book that I’ve given it a middling rating but I haven’t been able to bring myself to get rid of my copy of this book, even though I’m not at all sure I’ll ever read it again. On the other hand, it’s a nice hardback book that I paid full retail price for, so maybe it’s just me being stubborn here.