North, you dummy!

I fell in love with Beauty and the Beast when I was a young girl.  It was the first movie I remember going to with my dad (actually, it’s just the first movie I remember being in the theatre for).  I remember grabbing his hand and clutching it tight when the beast came in a frightened Belle’s father.

It took me quite some time to realize the most popular version, the one Disney based their’s off of, was boring and dull.

Thankfully, I realized in time to be saved from a long life of the drab version of one of the most varied and distinct faerie tales on this earth.  Nearly every culture has at least one Beauty and the Beast story, some multiple versions.  East by Edith Pattou, is a novelization of the Norwegian version, called “East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon.”  Truly, my favorite version of them all.  And let me tell you, there are some phenomenal contenders.

Pattou went about writing this book because she felt the original tale had plot-holes.  I don’t see them myself (if you want a great version of the tale, by the way, get the book illustrated by P.J. Lynch), but I can understand the urge.

Because she felt so much of the story was untold, especially in the sense of motivations, Pattou wrote East from multiple points of view: Rose (our Beauty), the White Bear (our Beast), Rose’s Father, Rose’s brother, and the Troll Queen (our enchantress).  At first, the constant switching got a little tiresome.  However, as I got used to the style, I realised this book was much like a rose itself, slowly opening petal by petal.  Yes, the multiple points of view make the chapters almost too short, but when considered an individual petal, the small chapters seem to make more sense.  All the outer petals must open before you can get to the large bud in the center.

Okay, done with that metaphor.  Apt, but felt stupid writing it all the same.

As much as I hate the Troll Queen for believing for a moment she had the right to own a human life, much less steal it, I think she is my favorite narrator in the entire book.  Perhaps it is because she’s an infrequent narrator at best that these looks into a mind so selfish, but so in love, are completely fascinating.  I also think it’s partially due to Pattou’s care.  She explains in her author’s note that that was one of the character’s motivations she understood the least in the original tale.  I believe this is another reason why she is the best.

Thankfully, even though the Troll Queen is clearly superior, the narrators are all good.  And, better yet, they are all distinct.  Neddy (the brother) is gentle and sweet, Father is constantly worried, the White Bear can barely string a few words together (which was quite the effect), and Rose is head-strong yet not so much as to be a brat.  Just marching to the beat of her own drummer.  I can say, with confidence, that had the author switched voices without labeling who was speaking at the beginning of each chapter, I would have been able to recognize each in their turn.  That was very well done.

Not only is the book split into five narrators, it is split into five sections, each titled after a cardinal point on the compass.  East, as one might suspect, is repeated.  These sections are well placed, and not even.  I like that.  Though there is much to be told for each phase of Rose’s life, some are more significant than others.  I think each section is connected to a narrator, the one who is most significant at the time.  I would assign them like so:

  • East: Neddy
  • South: The White Bear
  • West: Rose
  • North: The Troll Queen
  • East: Father

That is a matter of some opinion, though.  I think many people would see Father in the first East, and the White Bear in the second East.  This is merely my reckoning of the form and shape of book.  I’ve been known to be wrong many times before, and will be again for certain.  However, it is interesting to me that the section I like best is also the one that I feel belongs to my favorite narrator.

Technically, I suppose, there is a sixth narrator, the anonymous narrator who finds the manuscript in the Prologue.  Usually I am a fastidious reader of Prologues, but this one I somehow missed all three times I read the book.  I just found it tonight, and am somewhat glad of the fact.  The Prologue is good.  I think I would have preferred it as an Epilogue.  I recommend reading it that way, there is no vital information in it (as befits a good Prologue).

It’s funny, but it was only this last time around reading that I began to dislike the Beauty character, and not just in East, but in all versions of Beauty and the Beast.  I don’t know if this book revealed it to me, but the beauty strikes me as incredibly selfish.  She’s offered a choice to join the Beast to spare her family from poverty and certain death, but then acts as if her decision was somehow forced.  She then requires the Beast to take her back to her family, breaking his trust the first time, and when she returns from her family, she breaks his trust a second time.  I’ve always felt bad for the Beast, but now I really hate the situation he’s in!

I like that this book put that new perspective on for me.  I’ve written my own novella version of the tale, and my Beauty has the same problem.  I think it’s inherent to the role.  But, unlike The Little Mermaid (Disney version), she overcomes that selfishness to be a better person and to think more of others.  This is the important role of Rose, to show the capacity of the human spirit to be genuinely good against all odds.

Of course, there were things I did not like, but they were few and far between.  I felt that taking the setting from the Norwegian land (where it begins) to France was an unnecessary homage to what is considered to be “the original.”

Rose can be a real idiot sometimes.  She’s the daughter of a mapmaker, grand-daughter of a famous explorer and it takes her forever to figure out that “east of the sun, west of the moon” (her directions to the Troll Queen’s castle) could mean North.  Of course there’s no such place!  But, if you meet in the middle of the sun and the moon (which rise and fall as clear opposites of each other), but still need to keep moving away from them, how do you do that?  Well, I’m about as directionally challenged as they come, but even I know when the sun is at her height in the sky (noon), it is positioned due south in the Northern hemisphere.  So, to continue away from the sun, you would have to move North.  It seems to silly to me that Rose, who is much more the adventurer and acutely aware of her background, would not have at least tried some basic logic, even if it seemed like grasping at straws.

I also didn’t like that the personified winds of the tale were replaced with characters.  I like that part of the tale–it makes getting to the palace “East o’ the sun and West o’ the moon” even more impossible.  I still can’t figure out the fourth character who was supposed to be one of the winds, unless it was Rose herself.  That seems…unlikely.

However, these are small details.  I truly feel that this is a standout among novelizations of a faerie tale.  It’s well-paced, not forced, and if it doesn’t fix plot holes for me, it gives an interesting perspective on the original.

Reasons this is challenging for me:

  • It challenges my very strong notions of my favorite faerie tale.
  • It requires me to invest separately, by the two five-way splits, in parts that become a whole.
  • It requires self-examination on how I approach my own faerie tale telling.

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P.S.  This gets me up to date!  Huzzah!  I have one more Weeds Review to do, but as that is supposed to be after the weekly review, I am finally okay with going to bed and not feeling guilty!  YAY!

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