”It’s not fair!”
“You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”
~ Sarah and Jareth
Many of you will get that reference without my help, but just in case, here’s the lowdown. In the movie Labyrinth, our heroine, Sarah, is having one of her frequent temper tantrums, and is informing the evil Goblin King that his actions – and the world in general – simply aren’t to her liking. (Considering she gets to spend 13 hours with an amazingly gorgeous fae always made me question her judgment, but we’ll leave that for another day.) The point is, since she’s always saying things are unfair, Jareth is curious as to how she can make this determination, as she doesn’t seem to view anything as fair to begin with.
Ok, fine, we know you’re in love with David Bowie, but what does this have to do with books?
Bibliophiles can’t help but rank books as we read them. We don’t always mean to judge them, but we do. These rankings inevitably come from comparisons. Is this book better than the last you read? Worse? About the same? We remind ourselves that we’re often comparing apples to oranges, especially when we radically switch genres, but that doesn’t seem to matter. With so many sites like Amazon and GoodReads focusing on reader-based comments and reviews, we can’t help but give our opinions. But that means that, unlike Sarah, we actually DO have to have a basis for comparison. Every reader’s measuring stick will vary, but for me it inevitably comes down to the same basic question: What is the best book I’ve ever read, and how much lower on the totem pole does this one fall?
In some ways, I’m probably more guilty of this than most, because I was lucky enough to read my favorite book in fifth grade. Since I’ve loved it so deeply for so long, the chances of it being overthrown – or even challenged – are basically slim to none. But it does give me one heck of a measuring stick. You want to make it on my desert island list? Here’s your competition. Go.
The book to which I’m referring is Beauty by Robin McKinley, a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast. Since I love fairytales in general and BatB in particular, perhaps this comes as no real surprise. But McKinley managed to do what I’d previously considered almost impossible, which was to make a tale full of magic into something even more wondrous.
The story is told from the first person perspective of Beauty, whose real name is the somewhat questionable Honour. (Virtues are an interesting theme of this book. Her two sisters are named Grace and Hope, and a baby comes along with the name Mercy.) While the story follows the typical plot of the rich family suddenly losing their wealth and being forced to move to a small cottage in the woods, where the father encounters the horrible Beast when picking a rose for his daughter, McKinley gives every character so much personality that I can’t help but feeling like I’m reading this fairytale for the first time. In no other version have I felt as deep a connection to Beauty’s family as I do here. Her sisters have full-grown personalities, as do their love-interests, and I found myself bonding with them just as much as Beauty herself. Her father is an incredibly sympathetic character, and even though readers generally feel sorry for him in all versions, I felt even worse than normal. But perhaps what I love best is that the Beast has a depth to him I’ve never seen before. His emotions and motivations are clear for all the see, and the history of his disfigurement is explained in much greater detail, even going so far as to bring his parents into play. Even Beauty’s horse, Greatheart, has more personality than I’ve seen in the main characters of other novels!
With such a cast of characters, you might be worried that Beauty herself gets buried, but that’s not the case at all. By literally giving Beauty her own voice and allowing us to hear her thoughts directly, McKinley created a very real and very remarkable character. Instead of simply stating that Beauty was a great reader, McKinley shows her translating Sophocles from the original Greek and Catullus from the Latin. When her sanity is tested by the presence of invisible servants and a library containing books that don’t quite exist yet, we’re not only shown but made to feel her confusion, her anger, and eventually her acceptance. She is perhaps the most real character I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
Unfortunately for other writers, McKinley not only set the bar so high in general, she basically ruined me for all other first-person novels. I judge them even harder than others, and I become frustrated exceedingly fast if I’m not immediately drawn into the person’s mind and world. It’s a tough act to beat, let me tell you.
I’m not positive how many times I’ve read Beauty. I’m guessing somewhere between 15 and 20, but it could be more. For a long time I read it at least once a year, sometimes more. It’s the book I always took on vacations just in case I couldn’t concentrate on a new story, and it’s the book I return to whenever I’m feeling really down. I’ve read it at hospitals and funerals just too keep me calm. The cover is heavily torn in several places, and there’s a giant rip in one of the pages where some kid tore it on a school bus way back in the day. But I can’t bear to get another copy. Not only is it the original cover, which I haven’t seen for years, even on eBay, but this book definitely has more history attached to it than any other. Giving it up for a shiny new version would feel so wrong.
I realize I’ve put this book on quite a pedestal, but I feel like it’s colored so much of my reading experience merely by existing that I can’t praise it enough. If someone asked me what book changed my life the most, this would without a doubt be the one. It’s definitely my ultimate basis of comparison!
What book (or books) have impacted your life as a reader to a large extent? Do you have a book you’d consider your own basis for comparison?