Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley
So I had some issues with Robin McKinley’s first go at “Beauty and the Beast”, Beauty. The pacing was borked, the characterization was off, and I just couldn’t get why it was so beloved. I ended that review by promising myself I’d investigate Rose Daughter, McKinley’s second go at the fairy tale, as I’ve been assured it’s better than Beauty. (Charmingly, McKinley threatens to have a third go in twenty years in the afterword—which would be 2016…) It’s taken me two years to get around to it, but I finally picked up after the end of my academic semester. And I was right. It is way better than Beauty.
Rose Daughter is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast”. Lionheart, Jeweltongue, and Beauty are the three daughters of a wealthy, widowed merchant, who swore off magic when his wife died. But just when Lionheart and Jeweltongue are to be married, they lose everything, and it’s up to quiet, practical Beauty to relocate them to Rose Cottage, a small house in a tiny village that, mysteriously, lacks a greenwitch, where they all learn new skills to survive. When their father, traveling home, earns the ire of an enchanted Beast by taking a rose for Beauty, the Beast demands Beauty, now a gardener, to come and restore his own rose garden. Beauty, to protect her father, takes it up, but can she tame the savage Beast? And can her family survive without her?
Rose Daughter has a playfulness to it that seldom becomes simple or childish. Instead of being wicked, Lionheart and Jeweltongue, who are flawed, are brash and cuttingly witty, respectively; Beauty has a moment where she reflects on the fact that her only identifying trait is the looks all three sisters share, instead of anything more prominent, hence her name. I giggled when we were told Lionheart was engaged to the Duke of Dauntless. The naming system is very fairy tale, although it didn’t quite mesh with the suggestions that this story is set in our world (mostly certain words; “japanned”, etc.). As Beauty does her time in the enchanted castle, the more whimsical aspects—different animals appear in her room every morning—mesh nicely with the realities of gardening, which she throws herself whole-heartedly into. It’s delightful.
McKinley is known for taking her sweet time at the beginning of her novels, and she does here, as she did in Beauty. But the trials and tribulations of the sisters are actually interesting. Quiet, retiring Beauty is the only one really equipped to take care of the family after they lose everything, but her sisters throw themselves into helping the family. Their stories are fully formed; I can’t remember if Beauty did this, but we check in on them a lot, as Beauty can see what they’re up to in her dreams. This gets a little clunky at the end, especially since the climax involves Beauty being baited home, but Beauty loves her family, and they love her back fiercely. It’s nice to see the wicked sisters angle dropped for a much more supportive relationship, which informs Beauty’s choice at the end. (You might know the ending—that’s how I heard of Rose Daughter—but I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed it very much.)
Still, for all its beauties, it’s a bit light for me. I ran through it in a single day—young adult pacing and all that—and I didn’t see anything that I wanted to preserve in my commonplace book. I did enjoy it as a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” that makes more sense to the reality of the story, since the original is a cautionary tale for young ladies marrying strange men. And it’ll stick with me more than Beauty for sure. But as I was reading it, I experienced a odd doubling, or splitting; as an adult, I was interested but not enthralled, but I could see wee Clare absolutely loving this, especially given the fact that I didn’t care for the Disney version as a kid. (I like it better now, but it’s still not my favorite.) I think this is yet another situation where I missed reading a text at the right time for me to love it, like The Breakfast Club. But I’ll still recommend it to readers of just the right age.
Bottom line: Rose Daughter succeeds where Beauty failed; playful, delightful, albeit a bit too light for my palate, but I think I read it too late in life to love it. Solid.
I rented this book from the public library.