Beauty

Review: Beauty, by Sheri S. Tepper

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 1991
ISBN: 0-553-29527-6
Pages: 463

Beauty is the daughter of a noble, a father with a wonderful estate but little in the way of attention for his daughter. This is just part of life, however, and she's not too unhappy with it. Her mother is dead or gone, and no one will talk about her except negatively. She was raised largely by an array of herb-named aunts and the local priest, and has heard the rumors and whispers about being cursed long before she knew that being cursed was something bad. There is something bright and burning in her chest, but it has little impact on her life. Until, that is, she discovers a letter from her mother: her mother was from Faery, returned to Faery, and she was cursed by a fairy godmother to prick her finger and fall into an enchanted sleep.

Tepper starts by setting up a classic retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth, with an engaging first-person style in the form of Beauty's journal entries, but there are over 400 pages here and Sleeping Beauty is not a particularly complex story. Indeed, the eponymous hero escapes her sleeping fate through a well-handled ambiguity and Beauty quickly wanders far afield, turning into a grab bag of fractured fairy tales, stories of Faery, good versus evil polemic, time-travel, and futuristic dystopia. Some of these stories are engrossing and excellent, some are frustrating and shallow, and some are little but thinly veiled excuses for Tepper to rant. Taken as a whole, they form a novel that is deeply flawed but still worth reading.

The fractured fairy tales are the best part of the book. Apart from the Sleeping Beauty motif that forms the stage for the story, there are retellings of Cinderella and Snow White, a frog prince, and a passing mention of Rapunzel, plus doubtless many other allusions that went past me unnoticed. Beauty brings a practical empathy to the stories and a wry amusement when she recognizes them along with the reader (having learned them during her time in the twentieth century). Tepper adds a nice layer of reality while still preserving the details of the stories. This isn't minutely realistic historical fiction, but Tepper does a good job of putting stories into a 14th century context, adding some complexity to the supporting characters, and coming up with amusing explanations for minor details. The best is the treatment of Snow White, featuring a collection of Basque dwarf miners and an unspeakably beautiful Snow White with slightly less brains than the average cabbage.

Less successful is the time travel dystopian plot. Immediately after the opening sequence, Beauty is taken to a future where the world is covered with high-density apartments, the environment has been destroyed by relentless population pressure, and people are fed with tasteless processed algae. This scene, the subsequent escape to the twentieth century, and the events that follow are mostly an excuse for Tepper to rant about the evils of pro-life fanatics, religion, population growth, horror, slasher movies, and porn, using a dystopian scenario that feels like it escaped from the 1960s or 1970s. It's not particularly realistic, even in the areas where I probably agree with Tepper politically, and it leaves a bad aftertaste of heartfelt but unoriginally simplistic political obsessions. The eye-rolling induced by sweeping proclamations about porn leading to rape and snuff films interferes somewhat with reading the novel.

This vision of a catastrophic future thankfully fades into a background motivation for Beauty and the book is better for it. Time travel is otherwise used as an excuse to let Beauty write with the same assumptions as the reader, providing a more sympathetic (but less unique) narrator for the rest of the book, and to tie the main thesis of the story to the history of Faery.

Faery is the other major subplot of the book. Beauty spends time there, trying to get to know her mother and come to terms with that side of her heritage. Tepper throws in a retelling of the story of Thomas the Rhymer (inferior, though, to Ellen Kushner's excellent treatment) and does a good job with Faery fading from a land of beauty to a land of illusion. This is one of the better bits of subtlety in the novel; the parallels between Faery's determined ability to ignore real ugliness and cover it in glamor and the long decline of beauty in the world are thought-provoking. It's a shame that so many of the Faery are stupid and a little silly, which makes it difficult for the Faery war subplot to gather much emotional momentum.

It's hard to find at times under the sprawl of plotlines, but if Beauty could be said to be about one thing, it is the decline and fading of the concept of beauty. Beauty herself is, through her "curse," a guardian of sorts of the concept of beauty, which Tepper approaches from a pastoral, romantic perspective and links to the beauty of the environment, simple love, imaginative stories, and a Heaven-like abstract rightness. Against beauty stands the Dark One, Satan in essence, who creates a hell full of pornographers and horror movie producers (Tepper really is a little obsessed) and who attempts to capture and destroy Beauty through the story. It's all very black and white, even featuring whispered references to the Holy One, and while this fits Beauty's starting 14th century Christian mindset, I prefer more shades of grey in the moral conflict of novels I read. Faery could have provided that, as sympathetic but disobedient former allies of the Holy One who now pay a tiend to Hell, but they end up as mostly superficial dupes.

As a novel, Beauty is all over the place, and I think it suffers from attempting too much at once. Tepper's grasp of her themes is uneven and I doubt all of the book will be to anyone's liking. I wish Tepper had stuck to the after-the-fact loquacious journal style of the excellent opening chapters (the journal headings remain, but the style shifts more and more to real-time first-person as the story goes along), had trimmed much of the polemic, and had dropped one or two major themes. It's not that the book is plodding or long, but the numerous threads only vaguely cohere into a unified story. Still, Beauty herself is a compelling character and held my interest through the entire story. I was afraid that the outraged good versus evil dualism was going to drown the ending of the book, but right at the end Tepper returns to the fractured fairy tale style that she does best and salvages a satisfying ending.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this one, but I didn't regret reading it.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Posted: 2006-03-18 13:49 — Why no comments?

I greatly enjoyed Matt McIrvin's comment on Tepper (at my journal/94508.html?thread=285484, in response to my excoriating Tepper's "The Fresco"):

The only Sherri Tepper stories I've ever read were short ones. But Sam's read a couple of her novels and tells me that they tend to have all the subtlety of a 900-foot Jello Biafra standing on top of a 9000-foot Mary Daly hitting you with a giant clown hammer inscribed with Luther's 95 Theses in glowing Comic Sans to the tunes of "Pink Floyd The Wall".

Posted by rone at 2006-03-18 17:49

The review matches up pretty well with what I remember of the book; some wonderful passages, liking the clever plays on fairy tales, but some... really nasty bits that almost poisoned the good bits. Frankly, I felt that her evocation of porn/horror was just about as corrosive and evil as the original things she was railing against; just as parody of dumb stories sometimes becomes so dumb that it's unreadable, so Tepper's vitriolic satire of TwenCen evils contaminates the good bits of her own work. (The one specific image from the book that I can still bring to mind is the porn/horror creator in Hell with his feet turned to stiletto heels, with the 'heels' broken off and bleeding.) That said, the good bits were good enough to overcome the tainted feeling from the bad bits, enough to like the book overall and still recommend it to people.

@rone: Tepper's also done a series of YA novels, the True Game books, that IIRC weren't terribly preachy or activist; not particularly deep or thrilling, but at least enjoyable enough, especially for YA novels. (Though not involving enough to keep me reading the entire series, I did enjoy the ones I read.)

Posted by Travis Butler at 2006-03-22 21:18

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