Belle: Fair retelling of Beauty and the Beast

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Once Upon a Time Belle Cameron DokeyBelle by Cameron Dokey

The Once Upon a Time books are a series of relatively slim volumes that retell traditional fairytales, usually in an updated setting. Water Song: A Retelling of “The Frog Prince”
for example is set during WWII, and with the magical elements removed. Belle is an exception to this rule, as it is set in your typical 19th century time-period and with plenty of emphasis on enchantment and mystery in its second half.

Other reviewers have compared Belle with Robin McKinley‘s Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast. This is inevitable really since her version is probably the most famous rendition of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale (save for the Disney movie, of course). It is a little unfair though to compare the two considering both authors have based their stories on the French fairytale “Le Belle et le Bette” by Charles Perrault, and any similarities are the result of their fidelity to this source material, and not an attempt at plagiarism (and Dokey manages to get in a few of her own original ideas).

However, as fate would have it, I recently read and reviewed McKinley’s version, and so inevitably comparisons do arise when reading the two of them back-to-back. And yet for various reasons Beauty did not rank very highly with me (often it felt a bit padded in all the wrong places), and so I was interested to see what a new author could do with the same story and a lower page-count.

Like McKinley’s Beauty, the title character is not as beautiful as her name would suggest, and she’s constantly compared to her stunning elder sisters who (unlike their counterparts in Perrault’s tale) are not spoilt and selfish at all, but loving and affectionate toward Belle. However, whereas McKinley’s Hope and Grace were virtually indistinguishable, Dokey’s Celeste and April both have distinct personalities and relationships with their sister. In fact, Dokey puts a huge amount of emphasis on Belle’s family, including her mother (possibly the first version in which she’s still alive), her father, and her foster grandfather “Grand-Pere LeGrand.”

Belle is constantly overshadowed by her sisters, but finds solace in her wood-working skills. Since she was a child, Belle has been able to “feel” what a piece of wood desires to be carved into, and whittles away at it accordingly. But when her father’s merchant ships are lost and her sister’s love goes missing at sea (the only echo of Beauty that feels uncomfortable, as I’m fairly certain that this lost-at-sea fiancée plot was McKinley’s original invention) the family must relocate to a country house near a mysterious woods. When her father returns home after a business trip, he takes a detour in the woods and finds a castle…and yet foolishly takes something from its garden that does not belong to him, resulting in his youngest daughter being the price for his freedom.

This “something” is not the traditional red-rose, but the bough of a vaguely magical tree called the Heartwood Tree, which has its own sad history concerning a pair of lovers who were separated by death. Another interesting variation is that the Beast does not propose to Belle every night, but rather challenges her to look into his eyes for five seconds, for “that is how quickly a life may change, for better or for ill. The time it takes to make up, or change your mind.”

There are also some lovely images here, such as the Heartwood Tree that blooms red and white flowers, which mingle into a pink tapestry of petals on the ground, or the various gates and doorways of the castle that are decorated with the images of a man and a woman: when they are closed, their outstretched hands are joined; when they are opened, they are parted.

However, there are just as many concepts that feel messy or convoluted. Apparently Belle is so eclipsed by her sisters’ extraordinary beauty that no one can see her when she stands between them. That’s…a bit weird. Furthermore, the heart of any “Beauty and the Beast” retelling should always be the relationship between the two title characters (I mean, duh, right?) Unfortunately, we are well over halfway through the book (chapter eighteen out of twenty-three) before we finally get to meet the Beast, and the impending romance feels rushed as a result. There is some rather shaky commentary on concepts like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “the face of true love”, but these are ideas that are mentioned rather than explored, resulting in messages like this: “to find true love, you must look with love’s eyes.” Er…thanks book. That’s real helpful.

If you’re going to retell a fairytale, there should be something new to say, something that makes you look at the story in a different way. I’m just not sure that’s achieved here, though naturally that will differ for different readers. These books have never pretended to be anything but quick and breezy reads. Two stars may seem like a low grade, but in my book it ranks as “fair.” While it lasted, I enjoyed Belle, though it’s certainly not the best Dokey retelling in the Once Upon a Time collection.


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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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