Cross-posted from Papyrus Independent Author Reviews ([...])
A young prince is cursed by a capricious fairy; a young beauty is exchanged for her father's life, and only a love willing to sacrifice all will result in a happy ending.
"Pulchritude" is a retelling of the story of "Beauty and the Beast" and author Ana Mardoll's first novel. The plot itself is not an attempt to create a faithful facsimile of the original story. Mardoll uses the bones of the story as inspiration to make her own statements. There is an attempt to explore the role of women in a patriarchal society and each character becomes a critical analysis of a possible permutation in such a society.
I can have an averse reaction to being forced into the author's head via explanation of intent. I like the aspect of fiction (and art in general) that I can take away what I want or need from the work. The last third of this book is an invitation to peer behind the curtain. There is a summary of each character - why the character was created, what the character was supposed to represent and the problems faced by the author in utilising that character in the story. Additionally, there is an explanation of why the story was created, what the author was trying to achieve and even a deconstruction of the original story published in 1740. If I were being cynical, I could postulate that the author is not confident enough that her message will be adequately understood by readers with the story alone. However, I believe that these "post-mortems" are more an indication that the author enjoys sharing the creation process with her readers - a supposition that seems more likely after reading the acknowledgements. If you are like me, I would suggest you wait until you've digested the story yourself before starting on the end notes or skip them altogether.
One of the aspects of this story I most enjoyed was the portrayal of the various characters. It is always refreshing to see a distinctly multi-dimensional cast of characters rather than Disney portrayals which often struggle for even two dimensions. Bella was an insecure girl who was aware that her name and her appearance had become her defining characteristics. We see a girl who struggles to fit that mould and so appears vain and shallow. And yet her desire to be loved and to live up to expectations makes her sacrifice herself, both for her father and for the prince. We spend quite a bit of time in Bella's head and it was interesting and a bit sad to see how easily she aligned herself to the prince's needs. While she appears at times strong, selfless and even heroic, we can see that all her actions are stemming from her basic need to adapt herself to be what others require of her. Ezio, our beast, is a self-centred lesser-royal who is used to using the people around him to maintain his lifestyle. When cursed his only aim is to remove his curse and regardless of any sentimental reactions to Bella, she remains a means to an end for him. The reader is teased at various points that Ezio might be more than this and perhaps he could have been in a different environment, but ultimately he's not self-analytical enough to see that the sacrifice to break the curse might need to be his own rather than someone else's. Several minor characters also add interest, the father who was loving but not enough to prevent him willingly sacrificing his daughter for his life, the step mother who is strong and worldly and the prince's advisor whose actions are motivated completely by an instinct for self-preservation.
"Pulchritude" is a fairytale tragedy. These characters are far too flawed for the ending to be happy one. While the prince can't trust that Bella will return to him and unwittingly engineers her demise sealing his own fate, Bella herself is all too willing to sacrifice herself to act out the role to which she feels destined.
Mardoll's first fairytale retelling is a concise and successful re-imagining on her terms and I look forward to her next writing project.