Beauty, the novel.

2:03 pm

Name of the author: Sheri S. Tepper
Genre: Fantasy, Time Travel

 I was roaming around in the Annual World Book Fair in New Delhi earlier this year when I came across this book called Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper. It claimed to be a re-telling of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty & because I like re-tellings of fairy tales I thought "Oh nice", buy it and keep it aside for the readings post exam. Which is now. I finished reading the book yesterday and went like "Whaaaaaa...???"

Beauty begins beautifully in the 14th century. Beauty is a 15 year old child who has never known her mother and a rather uncaring father, the Duke of Westfaire, raised by an assortment of aunts named after herbs and kind servants. It is made clear the minute we, the readers, open the book that we are reading the journal of Beauty. Beauty's world is full of weird aunts who don't really, truly care about her, a father who doesn't even bother to pretend to care about her, a soon-to-be evil stepmother Sibylla (and the stepmother's mother) who is evil even before her marriage to Beauty's father...and servants like Doll and Martin, Dame Blossom and the stable-boys who care about her, a half-sister, Beloved who is dear to her, a rather dear priest she is close to and a crush Giles pointing out that the sympathy of the narrative lies entirely with "commoners". And yet, the protagonist, Beauty, herself had to be the only legitimate daughter of a Duke and a rather important fairy. Yes, you read that correct---fairy. Delightful isn't it? The re-telling of a fairy tale will have real fairies and this will explain the evil fairy gatecrashing the christening and going about the whole curse thing.

Beauty's description of Westfaire is charming, it really is, even though I didn't really understand why the daughter of a Duke who has never stepped out of her county and who lives in the 14th century England writes her journal with a lingo that is so very present day American. And it can't have been written in retrospect---every event in the journal has no mixing up or muddled up thoughts that comes up in memory. Still, overlooked since the narrative is charming and is a nice deviant from the same la-la versions of the original Sleeping Beauty. Beauty isn't a princess for one, her mother is a fairy who leaves her and was unhappy with the husband, her father doesn't give a damn & is a *ahem* rover considering he fathers illegitimate children quite a lot, and the curse does not fall upon Beauty but on Beloved, her half sister (illegitimate) who looks a lot like her, was born on the same birthday, the very same year as Beauty, is a commoner and loves playing the role of Beauty. Beauty and her cat escape the charm/curse because of somethings that the fairy mom sent her.

And then it happens. After that point, I'm not sure I understood what was happening in the novel entirely. I wonder if Tepper herself knew because she certainly didn't articulate it on paper. Out of no where comes a time travel in the plot from 14th century all the way to the 22nd (or was it 23rd?) century. It's odd, it's hard to swallow, but I think maybe it is crucial to the plot. It is not. I've no idea why the time travel was included. It made no sense, took up a lot of time and was rather silly. It seemed like Tepper's outlet to vent out out certain things to do with environmental changes like the death of whales. I don't know. I struggle to deal with the fact that the magical realism is intertwined this weirdly with sci-fi while Beauty along with some of the people in the far away and desolate future (there's no food, no animals, no space and everything, everything goes to a place called Fidipur) go back to the year 1991. In USA. I don't get it. It's just time travel, right? Or do they get to pick the destination? Or does the machine just throw it at them? Beauty was born in England. She ends up in the USA. Anyways, she goes to high school there and later on, college. She's hit on by many men (she is, after all, extremely beautiful), lives off her acquaintances from the future and is home-sick and wishes to be home with her family (except that they're asleep). By the time I get used to all this, another abrupt thing comes up--- Beauty is raped. By the time I reach the end of the novel, my only conclusion is that the abrupt time travel fulfills only two points: 1. To cry about the environmental changes that has nothing to do with the plot and should have been a part of an entirely different book and 2. To get a place where Beauty gets raped, which could have as easily have happened back in the 14th century considering Beauty is to roam around alone (now that her entire estate is asleep for about a 100 years) and is a beauty. Anyways, it is after she gets raped, that she suddenly realises that she has a way of getting back home.

She returns home pregnant and decides to fool and marry a rich man. Which she does. Oh, so much for the beauty that Beauty was trying to celebrate. She gives birth to a baby girl Elladine (named after Beauty's mom), decided she doesn't like her baby because she reminds her of the rapist dad, leaves her husband and child alone to go search for her own mother Elladine. And ends up in an "imaginary" place. I have no idea why this part is even in the book. You could rip the pages out and throw them away and read further and you wouldn't miss much. I struggled to make sense of (a) what the hell was happening and (b) what the hell is the book about, for crying out loud! After a very, very long and rather boring time in that stupid place, she ends up in Yelle (her mom's home) with the fairies, decides she doesn't like it after all, is scared for her life eventually and runs back "home". She reaches as a 35 year old woman. I don't get one thing. Beauty claims to be beautiful inside out. She claims to see beauty in the world. And then she goes ahead to oppose this very fact. She's a lookist and only appreciates outer beauty (and sex factor). She's sad when she returns because she isn't young anymore. I mean....what the hell, woman...and you were judging people who write horror books!

She goes back home to find out that her husband is dead but only after he had married a widow with her own many children. She claims to be an old aunt of some sort of her daughter, Elladine. Elladine's stepmother is rather useless and cannot manage her household well, making the servants lazy. Elladine, or Elly, cleans her own fireplace and goes about carrying ashes to do so. This doesn't make Beauty very happy. She'd rather the "lazy" servants do everything while her daughter washes her hair and looks prettier. She decided to help her daughter by making everyone work for her. And here she was judging the ugliness of the 1990s. Anyway, this is how the tale goes:

"You know what these sluts call me?" she (Elladine) asked. "Ella of the Ashes. Just because I carry out the ashes so I can get the fire in my room.".... It was only later I thought what she has said. Ella of the Ashes. Cinder-Ella. 

I like this part, it goes back to the re-telling of the fairy tales. Beauty decides to play Ella's fairy godmother. I'm not sure why though. She doesn't love Ella. She doesn't even like her. She believes Ella is inherently cruel and a sex maniac just because her father was. And yet, she does everything to make the story of Cinderella come true. She apparently does so because she has seen the Disney adaptations and therefore she must do it because it's meant to be. It seems, however, that she does it because even though Ella is mean and cruel and selfish, Beauty's daughter must marry and prince because she's her daughter and is beautiful. Oh, also, during the ball, Beauty sleeps with Giles (in a garden)...under a spell I think which put off my digestion for sometime. But she judged Ella for being a sex-addict and believes she got this trait from her rapist dad... Odd. Ella marries the Prince Charme and gives birth to a daughter. When Ella's pregnant, Beauty tells her, "She'll (the baby) have your dark hair." And Ella replies, "His pale skin. His red lips. This baby can look like that." And I scream "Snow White!" but Beauty, who shouts over and over in the novel that she's seen a lot of Disney, fails to see the connection. I thought it would be a bit obvious by now...if we've got Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, why not throw in Snow White? Also, why does Beauty automatically assume that the yet unborn child of Ella will be a girl. And why the hell does she automatically relate all of the fairy tales to the Disney version alone. I thought she was a literature major back in the 90's. Surely she must've read other adaptations.

The re-telling is broken throughout the narrative as Beauty simply must travel everywhere all the time for no reason. I'll skip to the part where she reaches old age and finds her grand-daughter, Galantha, whose name means the flowe Snow Drop = Snow White. Before that she meets the youth hungry witch Ilene who talks to a mirror but even then this Disney-educated Beauty doesn't see the connection. Anyways, Snow White is a nitwit. This cycle of fairy tale legends runs in Beauty's genes. This is how it goes:
Beauty (the 'original' Sleeping Beauty)---> Elladine/Elly/Ella of the Ashes/Cinder-Ella (Cindrella)---> Galantha/Snow Drop (Snow White)---> Giles Edward Vincent Charming (Frog Prince and Prince Charming II) who then marries Beloved, the actual sleeping girl who is to take place of and thus 'become' Beauty to the world. 

There is also a passing reference to Rapunzel.

I enjoyed these parts of the novel the most. It was imaginative and very interesting. I liked how the twists in the plot of the original fairy tales take place and how the characters are not all that goody-goody. Beauty doen't see it but she is rather shallow. Cinderella is selfish and cruel, sadistic in fact, and a sex addict. Snow White is plain stupid. The evil fairy who "curses" Beauty never had cursed Beauty in the first place, it was always supposed to Beloved and she is rather fond of Beauty. The good fairy who altered the curse never altered the curse as the "curse" was not supposed to kill anyone and is a liar. 

I, however, hated the disjunctures. The time travel, the rape, the travel to the imaginary land, Yelles.... all very disappointing and odd. Also, the whole deal with Christianity. I respect all religions, including Christianity but Beauty holds the Biblical version of all things as the actual historical truth without despite....which is not a problem morally for's just that... I'm sure there must be people from other religions in the 14th century, so, who and what are they? Another thing.... why doesn't Beauty use her boots to travel back in time when everyone in her estate were awake? 

All in all, I'm not happy that I spend Rs. 395 on this. A waste of money. Don't bother reading the book. The only part worth reading is Tepper's take on the fairy tales which I've anyways told you about in this blog.

My rating for Beauty: 3/10 This book managed to get the 3 points only because the re-telling of the classic tales was so much fun to read. I wish I could say that about the rest of the book.

Other book reviews:
1. Murder Most Fab by Julian Clary
2. The Wives of Bath by Susan Swan

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