The view from my reading pile.

Book Review: Beastly, by Alex Flinn February 4, 2010

Filed under: book review — stackscene @ 11:38 am
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I picked up an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this (for a dollar, but I did pay for it) at Wiscon last year, and hadn’t gotten around to it because yet another modern-day retelling of a fairy tale just didn’t seem that interesting to me right then. Then the other day someone told me it was being made into a movie, and I’ll be honest, the description of the movie sounded. . .kinda dumb. A little like they’re trying to make the Beauty and the Beast story the new Twilight, an impression that is not helped by the black cover with a single white rose. Still, my curiosity was piqued and I pulled it off the shelf.

It’s better than I expected, I’ll say that. I think this is the first time on this blog that I’m reviewing something I’m not sure I recommend, although there are some really interesting things going for the novel. So I’m going to try to discuss what the book made me think about. This got long, so follow the jump if you want to see me think too much.

1. The nerdy plain girl is actually beautiful. Ok, I’m just going to say it, I’m sick of this trope. Especially considering that the movie will have this character, the True Love interest Lindy, being played by Vanessa Hudgens. Can’t WAIT to see how they make her “plain.” By which I mean, braided hair and glasses don’t mean “plain,” ok? The scene where the main character, Kyle, realises that Lindy is beautiful was pretty much the Taylor Swift “You Belong With Me” video all over again. DONE. WITH. THIS. Because really, the whole point of the book is supposed to be that people should see past looks, right?

That said, something in the scene resonated with me, because part of the reason Kyle starts seeing Lindy as beautiful is that he’s getting to know her, and is clearly attracted to her personality. I’m not entirely convinced that it comes across as finding her attractive as a person, rather than seeing her in the pretty dress with her hair down, though. This is one area where I feel like the writing could be stronger. There’s also the problem of how much his affection for her comes from wanting to save her from her previous miserable life and addict dad, but at least she does actually have a personality to be attracted to (BELLA ADORAKLUTZ SWAN-CULLEN YES I AM LOOKING AT YOU).

2. “Teen” dialogue. I don’t know, maybe I’m old and out of touch, but a lot of the dialogue didn’t ring true for me. Sometimes it felt like a parody of how teens talk to each other. Like if you’re watching the new season of Scrubs, the annoying kid, Cole, it sounds like him. “Trippin'” is thrown around a lot. So this is an area where I wish I had more teenagers in my life, so I could get them to read this and see what they say about it.

The other thing I was interested in with the dialogue is that there’s definitely a shift in the language after the fairy tale elements come into play; Kyle finds himself almost speaking lines from a script, maybe because he is now part of this story, he is forced to play the part correctly. When Lindy’s father breaks into his green house, Kyle yells “Who dares disturb my roses?” and thinks “Why did I say that?” It’s an interesting choice, but I really can’t decide if I think it works or if it’s just really contrived. I was talking about this last night and remembered that I think this has been done better by a lot of other stories, but it might resonate with teens who haven’t encountered it before.

3. Kidnapping/power dynamics. One of the things that came up in the discussion of the movie description is how rarely the relationship dynamic in the Beauty and the Beast story is discussed or pointed out as actually being really disturbing. Kyle is a kidnapper, when it comes right down to it. Sure, Lindy’s father gives her to Kyle to buy his own freedom (ALSO HORRIBLY CREEPY) but for Kyle to keep her there with no way to contact the outside world and expect her to do anything but hate him? It does point out how very spoiled and out of touch with reality the character is, and believe me, I get how romantic teen girls think Edward is in Twilight, but I don’t really want to encourage that. Luckily, Beastly does actually acknowledge this! Which honestly, even if it isn’t handled with much depth, I consider a win at this point. Kyle’s tutor calls him a kidnapper to his face, and Kyle even calls himself a kidnapper when he thinks it all through. He still manages to justify it like crazy, and he even has some good points, but he still gets how incredibly messed up it is that he made the choice instead of letting Lindy decide for herself. So how do we know it’s not Stockholm Syndrome instead of real love? I don’t have an answer for that, for the record.

The other note on this is that there’s at least one scene where Kyle is in Lindy’s room watching her sleep, then realizes what he’s doing, DECIDES THAT IT IS A SUPER CREEPY THING TO DO, and LEAVES THE ROOM. If I hadn’t been proctoring an exam when I read that, I would have had a hard time deciding between laughing my head off or standing up to cheer. Take that, Edward Cullen! Of course, this didn’t stop Kyle from watching her sleep in his magic mirror before she came to live with him, and after he leaves, and he also talked about spying on his former classmates in the mirror when they were naked or showering, so I’m counting it as half win.

4. Inner beauty vs. Outer Beauty. Isn’t that what the Beauty and the Beast story is supposed to be about? In most of the versions I’ve heard, and in this version, the Prince is handsome and vain, and manages to earn his curse for treating the “ugly” witch badly, at which point she reveals herself to actually be beautiful. Then he has to make someone love him even though he’s a scary monster. The woman who does happens to be beautiful. I mean, the story isn’t called Fugly and the Beast, now is it? Why does it matter if the witch is actually beautiful underneath her disguise? So inner beauty is more important than looks. . .unless you’re a woman. In the fairy tale versions we tend not to see the Prince interacting with the outside world before or after his transformation, so it’s a little easier to go along with the idea that appearances shouldn’t be so important to him. In Flinn’s version, I saw a fairly grim worldview. The witch doesn’t want Kyle to judge people by appearances anymore, but what is she doing about the entire rest of modern society? Kyle’s friends are all just as bad as he is, and it really puts the lie to the idea that appearances aren’t important. So what’s the message here, withdraw from the world, find your one true love and ignore everything else?

5. Continuing the theme of Flinn’s possibly grim view of the world, date rape is treated very casually in this book. When Kyle is standing outside a party, he’s listening to guys talk about drugs in their pockets and who they’re going to use it on. There are other instances as well. Once again, society is just completely messed up and our witch is fixing it by. . .cursing this one kid?  

6. Speaking of sex and sexuality in general. . .there’s some weird stuff in this book about slutty “evil” girls and Lindy’s purity. So at the beginning of the book Kyle is talking to his friend and comparing school dances to legalized prostitution, because he spends all this money on a limo, tux, corsage, and more, and in return he gives the girl what she wants and he gets some (more or less a direct quote, but I don’t have the book in front of me). It’s made very clear, without being graphic, that Kyle and his girlfriend Sloane are having sex. Which, ok, pretty realistic, at least. Kyle and Lindy, however, do not ever have sex? Even after he breaks the spell and returns to his life, and they continue to live together in the house, but on separate floors? Plus the white rose on the cover is actually important to the story, and the fact that white roses are a symbol of purity comes up kind of a lot, plus the contrast of Sloane= evil girl and Lindy= good girl is strongly drawn. So yeah. Slut shaming in YA books, woo?

7. And finally, a completely trivial point that might actually be a little petty on my part! At some point after the transformation, Kyle decides that he is changing his name to Adrian. See, he looks up the names, and Kyle means handsome, and represents his old life, and Adrian means darkness and he just likes it way better, ok? Let me make this as clear as I can, I absolutely believe in the right to self-identify, whether that be with a nickname or a name change or whatever, but in this case it just comes across as a ham-handed demarcation of old= Kyle new= Adrian and also now he is mopey and he needs a new name to make sure we REALLY GET HIS PAIN. After he breaks the spell he goes back to being Kyle, and I have to wonder if his housemates call him Adrian at home? Either way it just came across as silly.

I guess I should also point out that a lot of my problems here are with the Beauty and the Beast story in general. I did actually enjoy reading the book (no really, which is part of the reason I’m dissecting it so very thoroughly) and think it’s a pretty good version of the story, but geez, that story has some serious problems. Maybe this is a good thing about the book though, maybe it actually manages to point out those problems without necessarily resolving them, leaving the reader with some discomfort? Or maybe I’ve been thinking more critically since starting this blog, who knows.

I am passing my copy on to a friend in my office who absolutely loved the Twilight books, so I’m going to be interested in hearing what she has to say about this one.


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