Beast by Donna Jo Napoli
“Beauty and the Beast” is one of the most retold fairy tales, I feel—the original text can be problematic, so it’s absolutely ripe for feminist retellings like Robin McKinley’s seminal Beauty, which started the trend and jumpstarted the idea that Belle is a bookworm. And yet, Donna Jo Napoli’s Beast is the first novel I’ve come across that tells the story from the Beast’s perspective. This recommendation is an oldie, coming from that time I read Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust and More Book Lust in a week in high school to start my now massive reading list, and I think it speaks volumes that I got around to it three years later.
Beast tells the fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast” from the perspective of the Beast, here a Persian prince named Orasmyn. A sensitive and devout young man, Orasmyn nonetheless is secretly prideful, hating the idea of needing to rely on anyone else. When a servant points out that a camel slated for sacrifice is actually ineligible, Orasmyn refuses to find a replacement, and the camel’s death offends a pari (fairy), who turns him into a lion, in the hopes that his father will kill him on the hunt. Orasmyn escapes, first to India and then to France, seeking the one thing that might lift the curse—only the love of a woman can reacquaint him with love for God.
If you’re looking for a romantic retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” from the Beast’s perspective, Beast isn’t it. Its greatest—and perhaps only—charm lies in Orasmyn’s faith and culture. Napoli has clearly done tons of research, and I personally found it immensely fascinating. Orasmyn isn’t a horrible person who needs to be redeemed through love; the dark side his Belle struggles against is the lion in him taking over the man in him. He’s incredibly devout, and the bulk of the slim novel is about the tension between the amoral lion he’s threatening to become and the good Muslim he tries to be. In fact, the reason he’s cursed is because he disobeys divine law and sacrifices an animal who has suffered, and it’s that he’s paying for. Napoli leans heavily on the worldbuilding, managing to both evoke Orasmyn’s privileged and respectful world (both his parents love him, although he can be stand-offish to his mother and his father regrets that his son hates to hunt) and occasionally feel like a bit too much. Happily, Orasmyn’s voice is engaging, and there’s some business with the difference between Arabic and Persian, as Orasmyn ponders over his cultural heritage as he feels utterly out of depth with his religious heritage given his circumstances. It’s an intriguing conflict for him long before he must win the love of Belle.
Which is where the novel falls apart. Well, it really falls apart as soon as Orasmyn leaves Persia. There’s a brief sojourn in India where Orasmyn learns that he can’t be part of a pride, because lions won’t accept him—he’s pretty bad at being a lion—and then a chapter devoted to his traveling to France. Now, in a longer novel, this would be fine, but Beast abruptly ends at two hundred and fifty-five pages. When a page can’t wasted, it’s hard to see scenes like this, especially when only the last third of the novel is devoted to the actual story of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s just insanely difficult to introduce a main character, let alone build a believable romance (always difficult when it comes to “Beauty and the Beast”), in the last third of a novel, and Napoli fails here. There’s some business with Belle being like a lioness, but it’s not developed, nor is her interest in Orasmyn’s religion, which informs the ending. Given the sheer amount of research, detail, and care that Napoli put into the first third of the novel, it feels a bit cheapened by its utter lack of development.
It’s a shame, really. It’s a fascinating concept, and I wonder if Napoli felt a bit hemmed by her audience; the ending is so abrupt that it seems so, which I hate. Not only can young adult readers take a longer and more in-depth novel, but the premise and promise of the first third really do deserve to be fully fleshed out. Here, it just feels like a sketch of a really good idea that goes lopsided in the middle. Sigh.
Bottom line: A fascinating first third goes utterly pear-shaped in Donna Jo Napoli’s Beast, which wastes quite a bit of pages on unimportant things and ends up feeling incredibly rushed when it comes to, say, the integral romance of the story. I’d say if you like, but it’s just disappointing to have such a good premise wasted.
I rented this book from the public library.