As remakes go, the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast perhaps holds the record. According to researchers at universities in Durham and Lisbon, the original story may be as much as 4,000 years old. Passed on from culture to culture and from generation to generation, the plot that features a beautiful young woman and a nobleman who through a curse has been turned into a horrid beast has spawned more than a dozen films, including Disney’s animated version and then a live-action one that starred Emma Watson as Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast. The small screen produced many movies and the very popular 1987 CBS series which centered on Catherine, played by Linda Hamilton, and Ron Perlman’s Vincent, a lion-faced (and sexy) beast who lived in the tunnels under New York City. There have also been many novels inspired by the idea of a beast hoping to redeem himself and return to human form by winning the love of a woman.
After all that, do we really need another retelling of the story? That was my first thought upon picking up The Beast’s Heart by Leife Shallcross. Several chapters in, however, I was hooked. Shallcross tells the story from the viewpoint of the Beast, who we soon learn was once Julian, a nobleman who failed to heed the advice of his Grand-mère and became too much like his cruel and egotistical father. A green-eyed Fairy transforms him into a hideous form. “Let all who look upon you see the nature of the heart beating in your breast, was the curse she had laid upon me,” the Beast recalls. His only way out: to have a change of heart so complete that, despite his physical appearance, he will win the love of a woman.
Leife Shallcross (Copyright Ace)
Shallcross has kept the fairy tale’s main characters and plot but added her own spin to the events. The Beast lives in a castle, yet one that is crumbling and filled with all manner of vermin. Rather than the jolly animated creatures that filled both Disney versions, a curious magic has descended upon the castle. The Beast merely has to think or ask for something – a glass of wine, a blanket – to have the item appear. Hoping to recapture something of his humanity, the Beast teaches himself to walk upright on his two hind legs and begins wearing the clothing laid out for him. Hungry for human interaction, he arranges for a hot meal to be laid out for an elderly traveler who, lost in the forest, finds himself seeking refuge in the castle.
After the dinner, the elderly man falls asleep and, owing to the castle’s magic, the Beast is given a window into the traveler’s dreams, learning that his unexpected guest has three daughters. When the man picks a red rose from the castle gardens to take to his youngest daughter, the Beast confronts him. In exchange for not killing him, the Beast asks that the youngest daughter, Isabeau, return to spend a year in the castle. Seeing no alternative, the man agrees.
Isabeau’s father was once a wealthy merchant, but lost all his money. He and his three daughters were forced to move from their grand home in Rouen to a small village where they no longer have beautiful things or servants. Isabeau, seemingly the more resourceful of the trio, kept the household running, doing most of the cleaning and cooking. Now that she’s gone, Claude and Marie have been forced to care for their father and their home. To compensate for Isabeau’s absence, the Beast sends the father home with two saddle bags filled with jewelry, clothing, food, and other items. While some writers have described Isabeau’s sisters as wicked, Shallcross casts them as beautiful and kind. Without telling Isabeau, the Beast is able to watch her family through a magic mirror, reassuring himself that they are safe and adjusting to their new life. And when Marie writes to her sister, the letter disappears from its wooden box and finds its way to Isabeau, thus reassuring her, too.
Isabeau wants for nothing in the castle and soon becomes accustomed to a daily routine that includes playing musical instruments, taking walks in the garden, and having the Beast read to her in the library. They dine together and at the end of each meal, the Beast asks if she would marry him. Her response is always the same: “No, I will not,” although she reassures him that he is still her good friend.
There are no real villains in this version, no Gaston who mobilizes the locals to storm the Beast’s castle and kill him. Rather, the Beast must tackle his own demons, striving to fulfill the Fairy’s edict, and certainly his grandmother’s wishes, that he has a change of heart.
In less skillful hands, this novel would come off as a bad imitation of the classic fairy tale. But Shallcross finds a wonderful voice for the Beast and her descriptions, not only of the castle but also of the Beast’s internal turmoil as he struggles with his feelings, keeps us engaged. The story, at its heart, is a romance, albeit an unusual one. Shallcross doesn’t gloss over that aspect of the story, either. Isabeau’s love for the Beast develops gradually, but when she voices her feelings, the curse is undone. Two hearts are finally one.
The Beast’s Heart
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