Review by Ann Davis-Rowe
THE BEAST’S HEART / Leife Shallcross / February 12, 2019 / 416 pp / Paperback / $15.00 / Ace / 978-0440001775
We all know Beauty and the Beast, whether from the Disney cartoon, the Disney Broadway musical, the Disney live-action film, Robin McKinley’s Beauty and Rose Daughter, or one of the other numerous retellings of the original French story published in 1740 – although that in itself was based on other stories dating back some 4,000 years.
Leife Shallcross brings us yet another variation of La Belle et la Bête, this one from la bête’s side (in case the title didn’t give that away). While a creative take, it’s also an immediate uphill battle for the author because everyone knows the story. Plus, Beast isn’t exactly the most likeable of heroes, anti- or no; after all, as all versions of the story go, his curse derives from his haughty and disdainful nature.
I’m sure you already know the plot here: young woman gives up her freedom to save her father’s after he stumbles upon a mysterious castle in the woods. I did appreciate some of Shallcross’ attempts to make her retelling original. Whereas Disney’s Belle is bookish and isolated, Shallcross’ Isabeau falls more in line with the original Beauty, a jill of all trades who is responsible for family housekeeping thanks to her pretentious elder sisters.
I enjoyed how Shallcross introduced the sisters, here named Marie and Claude, as one-dimensional side characters, then built them into more well-rounded women. However, the description of their sisterly teasing about their respective gentlemen callers quickly grew repetitive.
Also repetitive were the descriptions of how Isabeau and Beast spent their days. I get it; Isabeau agreed to spend a year with Beast, so a year must be transcribed. Goodness knows my days and nights are largely spent going from the office to the couch, lather, rinse, repeat. There are character and relationship developments built in to Isabeau and the Beast’s music and reading sessions and walks and dinners, but at times it did feel like it took a year to read them.
Emma Watson, who played Belle in Disney’s live-action film, eloquently argued against Beauty and the Beast as a story of Stockholm Syndrome, saying that Belle kept her independence and wasn’t afraid to challenge the Beast’s hissy fits and demands. Shallcross’ Isabeau does that as well, as Beast – again, repeatedly – points out her defiance and fondness of teasing.
However, even in doing so, we see how Beast is always looking to have the upperhand instead of building a partnership. When Isabeau falls asleep while he reads aloud a botanical book she picked out that didn’t entertain him, “Feeling somehow easier, now that I had gained this advantage over her, I smiled in amusement and continued reading, thinking of how I could tease her when she awoke.”
Also, more than anecdotes of Isabeau’s spunkiness, we’re often given lengthy descriptions of her bad moods and melancholy, of nights full of nightmares and the resulting insomnia causing her great distress that only the Beast can soothe. While Shallcross shows Marie and Claude becoming whole characters – through Beast spying on them, which is a whole other issue – we only see Isabeau becoming more dependent on him.
Granted, he is the narrator, so he is the hero/victim of his own story. Beast wants Isabeau to be dependent on him, so that’s what he focuses on accomplishing. However, it felt like a great disservice to Isabeau. Essentially, all we are told of her is that she selflessly cared for her family and then for Beast. Pretty, moderately talented in music and drawing, and servile. What more could any man ask for?
Which brings me to my biggest beef. Beast is apparently supposed to be our hero, not just the hero of his own internal narrative, when it turns out that he was cursed by a fairy because he was cold and distant and haughty. In Shallcross’ version, he acted this way because he was afraid of following in the footsteps of his father, a lecherous drunk.
The young man saw how using women was a terrible thing. So, rather than attempting to be a better man than his father, he just ignored women altogether.
If Beast were living today, he’d be the dude arguing that “we can’t talk to women at all because #metoo.” We’ve already seen this sentiment expressed on Capitol Hill and in other industries, termed “The Pence Effect” on Wall Street, where employers are essentially prohibiting women from advancing because they’re afraid to be alone in a room with them.
Once I had this realization, it was much harder to ignore the fact that Beast doesn’t actually evolve. He quits walking on all fours in the forest and moves back into his castle in an attempt to regain some semblance of humanity, but that doesn’t change his beastly attitude toward women. I couldn’t ignore that Isabeau is reduced to early Betty Draper, decorative and inoffensive, and we should be grateful he loves her despite her moods. I mean, when she finds the music room, she quickly gives up on the harp and lute before re-devoting her musical studies to the virginal - “...she began to dabble on the other instruments, but the virginal remained her favorite.” I’m not even looking up how popular that sort of keyboard was in France in the late 1700s because come on.
If Beast had learned from his mistakes, if he had grown spiritually to see that he was a conceited ass before, I would have been perfectly happy. I’m sure Shallcross and other readers will think it is a plucky little twist giving Beast more of a backstory and, well, heart. And I am willing to admit that I am probably biased here, due to my ever-increasing frustration with rich men of European descent who never seem to own up to the mistakes of their youth.
But to blame Beast’s curse not on being afraid he would turn into a monster like his father - to insist that he was really a victim all along and that mean old fairy should have known better - that I just can’t swallow. It made what was a sweet enough, if slow and derivative, book turn to ashes in my eyes. That fairy tale is already visible across our news outlets too much, and this princess is having none of it.
Ann Davis-Rowe has been a voracious reader from a very young age and holds a Masters degree in Library Science. She's also a secretary, actress, home cook, and co-guardian to the snuggliest puppies around. www.AnnDavisRowe.com