Just as in the classic version of Beauty in the Beast, this story is about a young woman who is imprisoned by a beast in an enchanted castle in her father’s stead. However, unlike every other version of this story I have read, in this story Beauty is not beautiful. Instead, she is a tall plain girl who borders on being awkward thanks to her large hands and feet. What beauty she does posses, is clearly between her ears. Beauty is an avid reader who dreams more of the possibility of going to university rather than of snaring a husband. Yet, in a day and age where women were not seriously educated, let alone allowed entrance to a university, plain looking (and even plainer speaking) Beauty may have a better chance at marriage than her definition of ‘happily ever after.’
This was a wonderfully well fleshed out telling of, well, a tale as old as time. I really enjoyed the character development, and the everyday details the author was able to weave into the tale. I especially appreciated McKinley taking the time develop the relationship between Beauty and the Beast as a meeting of the minds rather than just something that seems to happen, as it is in so many other retellings of this tale.
But by far my most favorite part of this book, was the library. Though it was only mentioned a few times, and only received a few pages of text, it captured my imagination like nothing else in this story. The idea of a library that contains every book that will ever be written is intoxicating enough to keep me daydreaming about what it would be like to spend time in such a place, long after I finished the book.
The publisher recommends the book for readers 10 and up, and I am inclined to agree, but would also like to add that this would be a wonderful introduction to historical fiction for a young person. It adds in the details of life in a time long gone by (though never clearly defined) within the safe harbor of a familiar story that I am certain they already know quite well. It is believable without being so brutally realistic that it might loose some of its luster for young modern readers. Likewise, it has enough in common with the animated classic we all know so well to be familiar, but diverges enough to make the tale unique and new again.