Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn't Run Away

Way back in 2005, Wendy Mass published the first in her Twice Upon a Time series--Rapunzel: the One With All the Hair. The second book, Sleeping Beauty: the One Who Took a Really Long Nap, followed in 2006. And then Mass left fairy tales for the next few years (though she didn't leave off magic). This year Mass returned to Twice Upon a Time, with Beauty and the Beast: the Only One Who Didn't Run Away (Scholastic, middle-grade, June 2012).

And, um, it didn't work for me.  Not in a horribly negative way--I have no hostile feelings at all toward it.   I didn't mind reading it, and was diverted--all the things I like about the story as it exists in my mind (the bookish little sister who cares about important things, the Beast with a backstory--likable, even lovable, under the fur, the castle with books) are there.  A younger reader might well enjoy it lots, what with its likable heroine, and its mix of humor and a serious, life-or-death, story.

But it felt a bit off to me.  For one thing, Beauty doesn't arrive at the castle until page 212 of 282 pages, so Beauty and the Beast getting to know each other is a lot less important than it often is, and since that is my favorite part of the story, it was a disappointment.   And what comes before The Meeting doesn't make up for it.  Before we get there, we have lots of kind of inconsequential stuff, along with two main sub stories (told in the alternative perspectives of Beauty and the Beast), to wit:

1.  A quest adventure that Beauty has on her own, the point of which doesn't become at all clear until quite close to the end of the book (and even when it's clear it doesn't seem like much point).  It was a really implausible sort of quest too, involving a girl who is kind of fairy-like wanting to find something her mother lost years ago, and it doesn't have much umph to it and it beats me why anyone thought that Beauty, just cause she didn't have much else better to do and was reasonably bright and spunky, and had travelled a little, would be the perfect travelling companion for this mysterious little girl.  But the baker's apprentice is going too, and pleasant, intelligent young bakers with no skills beyond baking are awfully useful on quests (?). 

2.  The story of how the Beast came to be a Beast, and how his invisible parents and older brother and him in Beast form all live together in the castle hoping for a girl to come marry him.  This part made more sense, although the logistical details of the invisible family (they were keeping their presence secret) bothered me, and the older brother was incredibly annoying and the parents not much better.

So those two stories get the reader to page 212, when the Meeting happens, and then Beauty, being really special, manages to fall in love with the Beast at an unrealistic speed (though they share a keen interest in alchemy, which is nice for them).  This disappointed me, because I like people to fall in love with slow, inexorable subtly.  And then the bad witch who cursed the beast gets what she deserves.

In both these substories, the tone felt unbalanced to me--there was considerable humor, of an almost teetering on farce type, but then the reader was asked to take the story seriously regardless.   Perhaps if the Beast hadn't been named Riley I would have liked it more, but Riley seems to me so 21st-century a name that from the moment I read it (page 6) I was distrustful, and it underscored the disjuncture I felt between the book's "relatable fun" and its moments of "serious historical fantasy." (The cover makes me similarly uneasy--that dress looks much more modern than I think it should, suggesting a contemporary romance).

In short, this re-telling didn't hang together in a cohesive way, but felt like piece-work, kind of randomly joined at the seams. Of course, for this fairy tale, Beauty, by Robin McKinley, set so very high a re-telling bar that nothing else really comes close for me....

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