058 – Beastly by Alex Flinn

Beastly cover I am a beast. A beast. Not quite wolf or bear, gorilla or dog, but a horrible new creature who walks upright – a creature with fangs and claws and hair springing from every pore. I am a monster.

You think I’m talking fairy tales? No way. The place is New York City. The time is now. It’s no deformity, no disease. And I’ll stay this way forever – ruined – unless I can break the spell.

Yes, the spell, the one the witch in my English class cast on me. Why did she turn me into a beast who hides by day and prowls by night? I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you how I used to be Kyle Kingsbury, the guy you wished you were, with money, perfect looks, and a perfect life. And then, I’ll tell you how I became perfectly beastly.
This book tricked us. When we picked it up, we really only had the vague idea that it would be a modern version of “Beauty and the Beast”, and that there was a movie. Neither of us had seen it. Kayla was excited by the idea of modernized fairytale. Cyna was less so, because she’d seen the trailer, but we were both curious to see how the author would take an old, classic story and revise it to fit this day and age.

So when we started Beastly, Kayla was hopeful, and Cyna a bit surprised to find it not as bad as she’d expected. Hell, even after we’d gotten pretty far into the story, we thought perhaps we might actually have a decent/not awful book on our hands.

Then we hit the halfway point, and things took a turn for the worse. They never recovered.

Here’s the thing: when you do fairytale updates, you can’t just cut-and-paste them word for word into a modern setting. They just don’t work well that way. For one thing, fairytales have been around for a long time. They’re very familiar to most people, so if you don’t do something new and interesting with the premise beyond a change of locale, you’re apt to bore people.

For two, fairytales are products of a different era. They’re from a different culture, with different values, plus, they’ve always worked in a different sort of context. In fairytales, things like, say, picking a lifemate based on the size of their foot or trading your voice for a man and a vagina are just sort of par for the course. But those things don’t quite work as well in real life without some adjustments.

This is where we have our problem with Beastly – it doesn’t make any of those adjustments. It slavishly adheres to every element of the original story, with only minor, superficial changes to accommodate the new setting. Pretty much everything else is kept exactly the same as the original fairytale, which means we are honest-to-God subjected to a story that:

a) presents ugliness/disabilities/hardships as some sort of curse/trial/test of character that can eventually be magically overcome if you endure them with enough grace,

b) uses physical beauty as a reward for virtue,

and c) centers around the hero kidnapping the heroine for the express purpose of making her fall in love with him.

horror

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The framing device for this story is our Beast’s contribution to a sort of group counseling chat room for “people who have transformed into other things”. Yes, seriously. It’s run by a “Mr. Anderson” (as in Hans Christian Anderson, get it, get it, hurhurhur), and its participants are Beast, the frog prince, the little mermaid, and the bear from “Snow White and Rose Red“. In the course of a few sessions spread throughout the book, they discuss various facets of their myths (in a weirdly meta way), which gives the Beast a springboard from which to dive into his narrative.

Our reaction to this was mixed. Kayla found it clever and funny, Cyna found it a little too gimmicky and troublesome, because right off the bat, we’re left presented with several questions:

  1. Who the Hell is Mr. Anderson, and why does he believe in transformation magic? Is he a wizard? A witch? GOD? What made him decide to offer pseudo-counseling for fairy tale characters?

  2. Do these characters’ fairytales exist in this world, or are they creating these myths for the first time? They seem to be aware (when referencing his story’s Snow White, Girzzly continually says “not that Snow White”), so do people know these stories as well as we do? Is the book trying to say that they’ve happened before, and these characters are only the latest to play them out? HOW IS THIS WORLD WORKING, EXACTLY?

  3. How the Hell is the little mermaid using a laptop when she’s presumably underwater?

Yes, this is Cyna, taking the piss out of a ~whimsical~ and ~cutesy~ framing device, but there you have it. It’d be different if the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the chats carried over to the narrative, but it doesn’t, so for her, at least, these interludes ended up feeling disjointed and out of place.

At any rate, our titular “beast” is Kyle Kingsbury, and our setting has moved from medieval France to modern-day New York City. Kyle is a superficial asshole, the typical “popular cool guy” at his exclusive NYC prep school. His father is a famous newscaster, whose influence – and lack there of – has left Kyle cartoonishly shallow, spoiled, and in desperate need of a lesson.

A witch shows up to oblige the plot, disguises herself as an ugly, overweight student, and lures Kyle in to playing a cruel practical joke on her. It’s pretty much entrapment, but Kyle’s an asshole, so we don’t really feel bad for him. The witch – Kendra – curses Kyle to look like a ’40’s-era werewolf – or a white supremacist big into body modification, depending on who you ask – UNLESS he can convince some poor girl to fall for and kiss him. He gets two years to find love, but after that, the fur’s permanent. Sucks to be him.

Kyle initially reacts to his transformation pretty much exactly as you’d expect – he freaks, tries to con his superficial girlfriend into kissing him (spoiler: it doesn’t break the curse, cause, y’know, she’s a superficial caricature, too), and finally goes to his father for help. Unfortunately, his father is such a one-dimensional asshole that, after weeks of having doctors fail to cure Kyle’s new “condition”, he shuts him away in a private brownstone in Brooklyn with only his maid (a walking stereotype), and a BLIND tutor. It’s here that Kyle – and the book – spend quite a while angsting away a rather lengthy portion of the page count.

During this period, Kyle is supposed to be developing as a character, and he sort of does, but only superficially. He’s bored so he starts reading more, and naturally TOTES identifies with literary monsters like Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera. He’s marginally nicer to the people who work for him, but only when he’s not in a bad mood, and he learns all the requisite “popular kids” lessons about how his friends never really liked him, how his girlfriend dropped him for his best friend the moment he disappeared, etc, etc.

This is all supposed to make us sympathize with him more, but…well, it doesn’t really work. Mostly because, again, the development is almost entirely superficial. Kyle experiences these things, but through it all, he continues to retain his whiny, poor-me, self-centered worldview. But we can ignore that, for the time being, because after all, he’s not supposed really change until he meets “the right woman”.

Honestly, up to this point, Beastly was better than some of us expected. Sure, it’s the literary embodiment of predictable, but it’s not as vile, or even as badly-written as it could have been. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a MG to YA adaptation of Beauty and the Beast for the Gossip Girl generation.

But then we have a six-month time-skip, and shit starts rolling downhill fast.

Six months down the line, after one failed attempt to connect to a girl romantically – in which he BROKE THE GIRL’S ARM, whoops, we never hear about it again – our protagonist has become a crazy cat lady. But with roses.

It’s utterly absurd. Sure, he was pretty damn emo before, spying on people he went to school with using his magic mirror, then on people on his street from his attic window, ultimately hiding in alleys and behind parked cars to watch them before he gives up, and that’s pretty creepy shit.

But after the time skip, his emo goes up from like seven to a hilariously morose eleven. His depression is cartoonish – he declares that “Kyle Kingsbury” is dead, because the internet says “Kyle” means “handsome” and OH CRUEL IRONY. He insists that his tutor and housekeeper now call him “Adrian”, because it means “dark one”, and dark is the color of his soul.

“Adrian” ~lives only for his roses~, because they don’t judge him, and they have all the beauty that he NEVER WILL. He refuses to let anyone else tend to them, spends thousands of dollars on their care, and goes absolutely apeshit when they’re threatened – which is how we end up with the kidnapping.

Happy coincidence leads the drug-adicted father of a girl from Kyle’s – er, sorry, Adrian’s – old school to break in to his garden, and when he’s caught, the man freaks and mentions he has a very beautiful daughter. Since Adrilyle and the girl had had a ~meaningful moment~ the night he was transformed, he’s magically stalked her enough to recognize the father and know that the girl’s homelife sucks. Naturally, he sees this as his BIG CHANCE to barter for a captive audience, so the two come to an agreement: Ayle will let the guy go, and in return for not pressing charges, the guy will force his daughter to come live with Adrylan. Everybody wins!

lol no

First, though we can see how it is possible in this day and age for a father (a really, really fucked up one) to trade his life for his child’s, we have a problem believing that his daughter would cooperate the way Lindy does. He doesn’t tie her up and drag her over to Kyle’s house – she goes along willingly, supposedly just for the sake of keeping her father out of jail.

Um, no. It’s not like this guy was father of the year. He was a lazy, drug-addicted jerk who treated Lindy like crap. It’d also be different if she showed any sign of being bullied into submission by physical or mental abuse – it wouldn’t be good, but we might be able to buy her going along with this. But she’s not. She’s billed as being this competent, self-reliant teenager who takes care of her father out of a sense of duty and strained love. The idea of a sane, modern teenage girl agreeing to be imprisoned by a stranger she doesn’t know, a man her father described as a “monster”, so that he can stay out of jail is pure, undiluted plot convenience.

Second, in what parallel universe would Kyle’s tutor go along with this? He’s supposed to be the grounded, sensible one, and while they’ve gotten to be friends, it’s not like they’re lifelong buddies. He gets paid to teach the kid. That’s it. Yet after only a brief paragraph of hesitation, he agrees to become party to kidnapping and false imprisonment? Also, why does he start acting and talking like a sixty-year-old British butler the moment Lindy arrives? His and Kyle’s dialogue post-kidnapping is so awful and awkward and out of nowhere. They try to lampshade it, but again, lampshading does not fix the problem.

Third, and most importantly, DID THE STORY JUST HAVE KYLE MAKE THE DECISION TO KIDNAP SOMEONE? SERIOUSLY?

RAGE

Kidnapping is a crime, no? It doesn’t matter how you try to sugarcoat it, how joyously and creepily he crafts her the ~perfect bedroom~, from information he also CREEPILY gains by using the magic mirror to spy on her bedroom at home. It doesn’t matter how he tries to rationalize that she’d probably be better given to him than to someone who might actually hurt her. He still locks the door behind her, he still emotionally blackmails her into coming and physically prevents her from leaving, he still treats a human being like an object. You cannot explain this away. It will never NOT be creepy and wrong. It’s still fucking KIDNAPPING.

How could it possibly have seemed like a good idea to keep the KIDNAPPING element of the story? Without subverting it at all? HOW??? The worst part is, this doesn’t come back to bite him in the ass in the end. He actually ends up getting together with the girl he’s kidnapped. THIS IS OUR AVENUE TO A HAPPY ENDING, PEOPLE. Felonies. But it’s ALL OKAY because he’s our protagonist, and he’s a “nice guy”, and he only wants her to love him! Physically confining a girl to your apartment until she agrees to love you isn’t wrong at all, right? As long as you’re a good guy!

Apparently so, because Lindy doesn’t mind too much. Her sole act of resistance is to spend a few days barricaded in her room. After that, she emerges and they bond and she falls in love with him, anyway.

Abduction is Love, after all!

Which brings us to Lindy’s character, or lack there of. She struck us as more or less a prop. We never get to see the story through her point of view, most of what we know about her is told to us rather than shown, and what we do see is her being a paragon of fucking “feminine virtue”. She’s a “good daughter”, raised above all of the other superficial girls Kyle’s known because she’s academically smart, reads books, and is pretty without being vain or slutty. She’s risen above a hard life to get as far as she has, but she’s done so with all of her ~sweetness~ and empathy intact. She’s ~compassionate~ and sympathetic and dedicated to whatever man happens to be in possession of her, and in Kyle’s case, she quickly forgives him for her imprisonment once she learns about his ~horrible~ situation.

It’s pretty, well, repulsive – the girl has no will, personality, or agency outside of what the book demands of her. She’s totally subject to the whims of the men in the story – first her father, then Kyle, neither of whom really have her best interests at heart.

Oh yeah, and speaking of Kyle. Have we mentioned that, even by this point, his attitude hasn’t gotten any better?

The point of most of the old classic fairytales is to communicate an overall moral. In the case Beastly, the moral that Kyle is supposed to be learning is to not judge people based solely their physical appearance. To be a better person The problem is that instead of changing his behavior and attitude, Kyle’s goal became finding someone, anyone to fit him the way he is. He focuses on tricking or forcing someone into loving him despite his ugly hairy face, instead of just developing the kind of personality that someone could love.

You can really see this in his relationship with Lindy – we never really felt that he actually cared about the girl much. She’s just the boobs and vagina he needs to break the curse, interchangeable with any other. He doesn’t worry about being worthy of her love. In his mind, he’s damn fuckin’ worthy, and the only reason he hasn’t got women crawling all over him is that he’s furry – and this opinion never changes. He doesn’t try to be “better” for her, to change for her, and any alterations he does make to his attitude and approach are not because he feels bad, but because he thinks that they will better enable him seduce Lindy.

For the most part, Kyle just charms her the same way he has charmed people all of his life – y’know, with money – and changes absolutely fuck all about himself. His selfish motivation never really goes away – even as the book comes to a close, he still only manages to view people solely in relation to what they can do/have done/are doing for him, and his desires still come first.

This is probably best exemplified in a scene towards the end where Kyle tries to bargain favors for his maid and tutor out of the witch Kendra. His tutor Will is blind and his maid Magda is a stereotype, so, because they have been nice to him, he decides that their situations in life are unfair. He asks that Will’s sight be restored, and that Magda be allowed to return home to visit the family she’s working as a maid to send money to. When the witch says no, his response is “So the first time I want something for someone else, I can’t have it.”

Aaaaaaand that’s his attitude in a nutshell. It’s all about him. Even when the book is trying to show him empathizing with other people, it doesn’t work, since the only reason he cares about these people’s plights in the first place is because they’ve done nice things for him. He doesn’t give a shit about some homeless guy on the street, he doesn’t try to feed the poor or work world peace into his spell-breaking contract. He just deigns to reward the people who’ve helped him. And then whines about how it’s unfair to him when he can’t, because he’s trying to be unselfish, dammit!

Also, note how he could easily grant one of these wishes himself by just using his father’s credit card – which has funded pretty much the entirety of the book’s adventures – to send Magda home to her family, but doesn’t. Of course, this would spoil one of the book’s “twists” at the end, so whether it’s indicative of Kyle’s self-absorption or just makes him a victim of bad writing is your call.

At any rate, the rest of the book is mostly devoted to Kyle and Lindy’s love, and once they fall, is entirely devoid of reasonable conflict. But we’ve got another fifty pages to go and it’s too early for the happy ending, so the book that’s already had its fair share of padding to stretch it out has to manufacture some more. In short (deep breath, spoilers):

Magic mirror, ailing father, girl must leave before declaring love for/kissing boy, and doesn’t go back, in this case because, we shit you not, she just can’t find his house again. But we have to have a happy ending, so Lindy finds herself in trouble, attempted rape as a plot device, Kyle saves her, is made handsome because that’s his Reward for “Virtue”, it turns out Kendra was the Mexican housekeeper all along, which is both an arbitrary plot twist and like racefail Inception because of how many goddamn layers you end up with, and everybody wins!

The epilogue is insultingly cutesey, and entirely pointless except to demonstrate how everyone has gotten a happy ending, except for those who don’t “deserve” it. Kyle seems to revert back to his normal personality, he and Lindy go back to their same old school, and continue to reside in the same brownstone with Will, who can now see (isn’t it awesome that blindness is just some mystical ailment that can be cured with a wish? Oh wait, it’s not…), and they move on.

The only difference from the start of the novel is that now Kyle has a girlfriend who actually cares about him – his old girlfriend totes still wants him, because she’s superficial like that, but now Kyle takes pleasure in blowing her off, see how much he’s changed? Essentially, it just shows us that Kyle has gotten everything he wanted without really having to evolve as a character, and it only cost him two years of living as an ugly person!

So yeah, this book didn’t work for us. The story was boring and predictable, mostly because it couldn’t be asked to subvert or even alter much of the original fairytale beyond superficial little touches, which also means that we end up getting presented with an crapton of troubling themes and plot points that are played totally straight. But even if none of that were an issue, our protagonist is a raging dick who has little development over the course of the book, and is surrounded by a cast of flat, unrealistic characters that it’s almost impossible to relate to. Not recommended. Not even a little.

One Star


 

5 Responses

  1. Miss Bookiverse

    February 6, 2012 11:46 am, Reply

    As usual this review was awesomely epic! I read Beastly a while ago and thought it was an easy guilty-pleasure like read, nothing special. The similarities to the original story bothered me as well, it was pretty boring.
    By the way, I think you should totally check out the movie and review it as well. It was even worse than the book 😀

    • Kayla + Cyna

      February 7, 2012 2:34 am, Reply

      Thanks! 😀 Honestly, that’s kinda what we thought it’d turn out to be, too, until we hit the kidnapper part. Nothing like a felony to crash the party!

      XDDD That was the plan. And oh god, did not think that was possible. /scared

  2. Miss Bookiverse

    February 7, 2012 10:29 am, Reply

    Seriously, the only good thing about the movie is the soundtrack. I don’t even find Pettyfer attractive (in fact Vanessa Hudgens is cuter to look at than him… and not because he’s a “beast” most of the movie).

  3. rassaku

    October 23, 2012 6:21 am, Reply

    This is a trope that bothers me a lot: when the protagonist is laboring under some kind of “disability” — being blind/mute/crippled/beastly/what-have-you — but instead of growing as a character into someone who can live with that, and learning how to be just as badass as anyone else in spite of it, their narrative reward is to be magically cured of it. Cecilia Dart-Thorton does this in The Ill-Made Mute (which I haven’t read, but a friend of mine told me what was rage-making about the ending and I was like, yup). Carol Berg does this in Transformation, in which the main character is stripped of his magic and enslaved prior to the start of the story, in what we’re told is a permanent procedure, and the whole book is about him learning to have agency and an identity independent of being a magician, and then WHOOPS NEVERMIND, he is magically restored his powers at the end. Fuck that noise.

    Ableism isn’t an -ism that I know much about, so I don’t quite have the words for articulating why this bothers me so much. It’s certainly implying that heroes can’t be (or remain) “disabled” in any way. It trivializes the hardship of learning to live with a change in ability. I don’t know — it’s like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too, getting to wrack up the “oh woe is me” sympathy points of suffering this burden, but then not having to deal with the permanent consequences of it. It erases the experiences of people actually suffering those disabilities (my apologies if that’s not the right word for it), and erasure, at least, is something that I’m pretty familiar with.

  4. Kayla + Cyna

    October 23, 2012 3:17 pm, Reply

    It’s certainly implying that heroes can’t be (or remain) “disabled” in any way. It trivializes the hardship of learning to live with a change in ability. I don’t know — it’s like they’re trying to have their cake and eat it too, getting to wrack up the “oh woe is me” sympathy points of suffering this burden, but then not having to deal with the permanent consequences of it. It erases the experiences of people actually suffering those disabilities (my apologies if that’s not the right word for it), and erasure, at least, is something that I’m pretty familiar with.

    I think you pretty much just said it all. I’d only add that I think some authors try and tick the “diversity” box by adding in a disabled character, or demonstrate the “realistic” consequences of a grim gritty adventure, only to ABANDON SHIP when writing the character becomes too “hard”/not conducive to the cliche action “fun”. It certainly reinforces the idea that disabled characters aren’t fit to be heroes/aren’t what people “want to read about”, at least.

Leave a Reply