Beauty is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty set in three periods: the 1300s (the century in which Beauty was born), the 1990s which functions as modern day and is when the book was written, and the future (around 2100).
We meet Beauty, the title character, as a young girl who lives in a castle with her father, the Duke of Westfaire and her aunts who are named after herbs. Beauty is accompanied by her cat Grumpkin and longs to know what happened to her mother who she has never met and knows little about. Her aunts evade this and other questions that Beauty has. Beauty’s story, as recounted through her intensely detailed journal, gets interesting as she finds ways to escape from the curse that befalls Westfaire that left the Disney Sleeping Beauty waiting for her Prince Charming. Beauty is nothing like the Disney versions that we have become accustomed to. Tepper makes that perfectly clear. Through enchantments she travels back and forth through time, to a land called Faery, and even to Hell.
It is interesting that Beauty is aware of fairy tales, as she has traveled to modern times, and read them during her days as a young college student where she studied literature. So we see a kind of meta thinking on her part of how the fairy tales became tales and how her actions can dictate what will happen in the future. We see the connection between what really happens in the life of the real Sleeping Beauty as compared to the story that we learn, with changed details and all. Beauty is aware of this and at one instance she thinks that she may as well do what the fairy tale said she did.
In addition to Sleeping Beauty there are hints and elements of other well-known fairy tales. Tepper spins Rapunzel, Cinderella, The Frog Prince, & Snow White into a story that is as much fantasy as it is fairytale. There were allusions to Puss and Boots, Little Red Riding Hood, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as well.
Underneath the retelling of these fairy tales is Tepper’s message that mankind and faeries alike must be cognizant of the Earth and the fragile nature of the environment (and thus our own existence) or we will destroy it. This is clear in Beauty’s trip to the dystopic “twentieth” where she is dismayed by the inhabitant’s behavior, their lack of windows and fresh food, among other things. Beauty is able to fully appreciate the ramifications of man’s impact on Earth and society during her stint in Hell. Tepper is not subtle here, though nothing about her tale is. Other issues that are brought up are brutality against women, aging and perceptions of beauty, women’s rights, and the idea of magic versus religion.
Two of my favorite passages:
“Though I have always known it will be my fate to marry and leave it, still I love Westfaire hopelessly. I love the lowe of sunset on the lake at our back, the blossoming trees in the orchard close, the gentle curve of the outer walls resting in the arms of the forest. I love the towers, the shining dome, the delicate buttresses, and the lacy windows. From a hill not far away (we always go there on the first of May to collect herbs and wildflowers) one can look down on Westfaire and see it whole. Whenever I look at it thus, the burning within me grows into a fire, closing my throat, catching at my heart, as though Westfaire and I burned with the same holy light”
“But there’s this unexpected thing about man. He climbs. That’s the thing about him. He climbs. Not all of him, oh no, or there’d be no more living with him than with the angels, but now and then there’s one who does…And when a man or woman climbs, Beauty, he or she can end up as high as the angels or higher”
Brigindo has previously blogged about Beauty in her 3 part exploration into fairy tales here. Her series on fairy tales is intriguing and I am now reading more fairy and folk tales.