fulfilling my 2021 goal to read one book each month by an author i love that i haven’t gotten around to reading yet
this beauty and the beast retelling is the very antidote i needed to erase the last B&B adaptation i read from my brain: For the Wolf, in which an incurious would-be heroine meanders through her captivity in an increasingly unstable environment while an uncommunicative semi-immortal man refuses to tell her how to help him keep the chaos at bay. and then they kiss and stuff.
this one is so much more to my liking, with a heroine who is efficient and level-headed, and a romance that is earned by *gasp* communication, conversation, getting to know one another, instead of a young woman’s near-pathological fixation on what the love interest smells like and how his hair looks.
the lode-bearing parts of this story are pretty faithful to the beauty/beast original, with some modifications. first off, bryony is no beauty, and she’s perfectly fine with that fact. secondly, she is not a virgin sacrifice (nor even a virgin) gifted to the beast by The Patriarch. here she stumbles half-frozen into her own fate—taking shelter from a blizzard in an enormous, seemingly unoccupied though well-kept house that seems to magically anticipate her needs. bryony and her horse fumblefoot eat, drink, rest and revive and, before departing for home, she takes a rose from the table for her sister ivy, whereupon the beast appears, reluctantly informing her* that this transgression has consequences and she belongs to the house now, ignorantia legis neminem excusat &yadda. he permits her to return home for a week to say her goodbyes to her beloved sisters and her even more beloved garden, and to pack anything she might require to make her new surroundings more tolerable.
to her credit, she doesn’t weep or strategize how to avoid her fate—as practical as a jane austen heroine, she accepts her punishment and honors the rules.
her willingness to accept this situation makes sense because she’s already experienced some significant upheaval in her life; her prospects for her future narrowed when her father lost their fortune and died in disgrace, leaving his three daughters alone to fend for themselves and bryony happier for it.
“When everything was sold, and all we had left was a cottage so far away that nobody wanted it…I stopped feeling miserable. It was like I’d come out the other side. I remember this kind of crazy exhilaration as we left the city.”
“Because we were finally leaving?” asked Holly, the teacup forgotten halfway to her mouth.
“A little. But more…” Bryony spread her arms. “If that could happen to us, if we could be rich and then suddenly have nothing—if life could change that much, overnight—then anything could happen. Birds could turn into fish. The sun could rise at midnight. I could learn to fly. The world was obviously wilder and stranger than anyone knew. And there was nothing left to lose. Nobody could take anything from us, because we didn’t have anything left to take. I felt invincible.”
bryony was never interested in marriage and was relieved to be out of the courtship game—she shared her equally unpretty sister holly’s exhaustion of entertaining suitors halfheartedly pretending they were desirable for their merits instead of their money. their youngest sister ivy was pretty and girly and loved all that fairytale stuff, but all bryony wanted was to be in her comfy gardening clothes with dirt under her nails.
a passionate gardener who hated roses even before one sealed her fate, the only things she brings to her new home are plants and seeds, turning a small portion of the beast’s sprawling grounds into her own botanical paradise.
once ensconced in the house, in the most emphatically pink room of all time, bryony soon discerns that she is not the beast’s prisoner; that they are both prisoners to…something else, possibly the house itself, as it clearly has a personality and a sense of humor to go along with its magical abilities.
the beast can’t tell her much about whatever sinister force is keeping them imprisoned together, but—unlike the tight-lipped fellow in For the Wolf, it’s not that he won’t, but that he can’t—each time he comes too close to divulging too much, the house makes its displeasure pretty clear until the beast walks it back placatingly.
bryony clocks the rules pretty fast and becomes a proactive and resourceful investigator, soon finding a way around these restrictions in order to figure out how to lift this curse and get back to her life.
but overall, although she misses her sisters, it’s not a terrible place to be. she has her garden, the house can summon anything she could possibly want, and the beast has a kickass library. a booknerd whose own library was greatly diminished by her family’s financial ruin, she’s delighted by the beast’s shelves, although a little embarrassed at the sheer greed that the Beast’s library awoke in her.
in short, she acclimates, becoming part of her surroundings without losing herself to them. she has no interest in the frilly pink dresses and jewels the house keeps laying out on her bed, but she’s gracious enough to make some concessions and endure what she can, meeting the house’s sartorial preferences halfway. she also gets used to the beast; their compatibility surfacing in unexpected ways, familiarity breeding respect and understanding, and bryony’s kind enough to try to make the beast feel less self-conscious about his physical appearance. although he attends the formal dinner every evening, he will not eat in front of her, out of consideration for her likely disgust having to watch a beast eat. eventually, she makes him get over his damn self:
“You might as well pour yourself one,” she said wearily. “Ask the house for a bowl or something.”
He stiffened. “It is—”
“Unsightly, I know. Beast, does it matter? You are what you are. I promise that I will not be horrified if you lap your wine instead of sipping it.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Perhaps I should beg your pardon for sipping it. Who is to say which one of us is doing it correctly?”
their blossoming relationship is perfect, made up of playful banter that develops into a genuine appreciation for each other’s company, even as she turns down his nightly, curse-ordered marriage proposals.
the ending is very different from the original, traveling some very dark ground before resolving in a satisfying and fitting conclusion even better than the original happily ever after. and one MUCH better than For the Wolf. if only all romances were as genuine and un-gooshy as this, i might like ’em more…
* after this outstanding meet-
cutewet too long to quote in the body of the review, that showcases everything that makes these two characters so appealing, and reason #138 of Why I Love T. Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon:
“I never faint,” she said aloud. “I consider it revolting. I have no patience for women who faint.” She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers.
“On the contrary,” rumbled the voice of the Beast, “I felt that your skull bounced most charmingly on the carpet…And the way in which you soiled yourself with terror was graceful in the extreme,” added the Beast.
Bryony’s eyes flew open and she sat bolt upright, ignoring the ringing in her ears and the immediate stabbing pain behind her eyes. “I did not!” she cried, and then the smell hit her, and she realized that she had.
“It is not right that I am going to be both dead and mortified,” she told the Beast. “Either kill me now or give me a change of underwear.”
He was kneeling down, which put his head on a level with Bryony’s. His golden eyes were cool and sardonic and amused.
“I am not going to kill you. And I fear that I do not carry women’s underwear about my person.”
“You are not a gentleman!” cried Bryony. It was not that she was too furious to be afraid, it was that fury was sitting on top of the terror and riding it like a horse.
“No,” he said. “I am a Beast.”