Beastly by Alex Flinn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Technically this review contains spoilers, but if you know the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, you already know the basics of what’s going to happen in Beastly. Not that you can’t see all the clichés getting ready to roll out from the start.
Kyle Kingsbury is a horrid brat spoilt with good looks, status, and wealth, although the reader is supposed to feel a little bit sorry for him because his father is an arrogant bastard who doesn’t seem to care much about his son. Kyle has taken to heart his father’s belief that no one should have to look at ugly people and thus he enjoys tormenting them when he’s not completely ignoring their existence. To punish him, a witch disguised as an unattractive schoolgirl curses Kyle by making him as ugly on the outside as he is on the inside. However the witch gives him one chance to break the spell – fall in love with someone who loves you in return within the next two years, and her kiss will change you back.
Transformed into a hideous beast, poor Kyle can no longer be the most popular guy in school and is forced to live in solitude with only a blind tutor and a housekeeper for company. He develops some emotional depth, as indicated by his new hobby of reading literary classics – the drab conventional symbols of intellect. Kyle also changes his name to Adrian, because he no longer feels that he’s the same person. It’s all very ho hum, particularly since this story is hardly new – a hot, self-centred jock is taught the error of his superficial ways and learns to see beyond physical beauty. Not that he really has to, because the plain, nerdy girl he inevitably falls in love with is not as unattractive as she first seemed but is actually a babe hidden behind poverty, baggy clothes, and an unflattering hairstyle.
The girl in Beastly is Lindy. Lindy lives in a rough neighbourhood with a drug addicted father, but she’s smart, reads most of the time, and hopes to escape to a good university. But then her father breaks into Adrian’s home looking for drug money, and offers to give Adrian his daughter when Adrian catches him and threatens to turn him into the police. This is where this humdrum novel takes a turn for the ludicrous.
Copying and pasting the Beauty and the Beast plot into a contemporary New York setting with high school characters leaves the story awkward and implausible. Giving away your daughter is normal in folklore, but in most of the modern world, women are not considered property, and therefore it seems bizarre that Lindy’s father would so easily give her to the Beast in exchange for his own freedom, even if he is a drug addict. And although Kyle/Adrian needs her for his own spell-breaking purposes it’s even more ridiculous that he, not to mention his companions Will and Magda, would not have more than a slight problem with basically kidnapping a girl and holding her captive indefinitely. Of course Lindy comes to accept her captivity and to care for the beastly Adrian. Again, this might not seem odd in a fairytale where marriage could be a girl’s only ambition and Beauty could learn to live with her situation, but in this case Lindy loses a valuable high school scholarship and her hopes of going to college seem to have been tossed out the window. By the time she and Adrian were waltzing and having snowball fights I’d written this off as painfully contrived junk. You already know how it ends (although it ends up being even more unlikely than you’d expect).
Besides being so clichéd, Beastly tries to be a moral tale about inner beauty being more important than outer beauty but, like its many predecessors, it sounds insincere. Dualities of ugliness and beauty remain firmly in place. The ugly people are still ugly, the beautiful people are still beautiful, although sometimes the ugly people are actually beautiful, they’re just badly groomed. Lindy went from plain to gorgeous as soon as she changed out of her baggy clothes and loosened her long red hair. The witch Kendra wasn’t really ugly or fat – that was just a disguise to test Kyle. And Kyle/Adrian himself is only temporarily cursed. Actually, none of the main characters are truly physically ugly, so whatever the book is trying to say, and whatever epiphany Kyle/Adrian has, it still seems to suggest that only the beautiful are worthy of attention. So what exactly is the message here? Perhaps it’s that you shouldn’t be mean to the hideous because they’re people too. Brilliant.
Not that Beastly didn’t have have potential – retellings of fairytales are often interesting, and writing this one from the Beast’s perspective, explaining how he became a beast, was a good idea. And at least Lindy, in falling in love with beastly Adrian, really does value inner beauty over outer appearance. I also found it admirable that Flinn didn’t completely ignore the disturbing sexual undertones of the fairytale. Lindy’s father is basically pimping her and the idea of a guy locking a girl up in his home immediately implies rape, a concern that Lindy raises, although she refers to ‘sex’ rather than the more explicit ‘rape’. In addition, it was great to see the original Little Mermaid story play out in the chat with SilentMaid. Most fairytales, in their original or earlier versions, are very dark and disturbing, and I much prefer it when this is acknowledged rather than sanitised and glossed over to produce twee little stories for children. Beastly is at least not too childish, but none of this is enough to save what is really a very mediocre novel.