Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper

This is one of my favorite books in the whole world. I can’t say enough about how much I love this novel. My mother read it first and then handed it to me saying I would like it, and oh boy does my mom know me.

The story of Sleeping Beauty has been told a thousand times in hundreds of different languages, but never have I read a better version of it than Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty. (For teenagers, Beauty by Robin McKinley is a nice fairy story turned into a young adult novel, but for adults, Tepper’s version is more in-depth and interesting)

Beauty, daughter of the Duke of Westfaire, is described as loquacious, beautiful, and curious. Surrounded with a bevy of well-meaning aunts to see to her education, a father who does not care for her, a mother who has mysteriously vanished, and a Curse hanging over her head, Beauty is a still a typical teenager; irrepressible and full of growing pains and questions about the world around her.

Beauty is an exceptionally lovable heroine. She is not too smart, but she is buoyant. She bounces back from whatever life hands her, and through it all she writes her story honestly and meets every situation with a kind of forthright courage.

Through a series of odd events, Beauty finds herself side-stepping the Curse and embarking on a fantastic adventure that takes her through a story of the ultimate battle for good against evil.

During the telling of the story, told in first person by Beauty, there are plenty of witty and observant asides written by Carrabosse, old Tick-Tock (as Puck -yes, Puck is in here too – calls her) Fairy of the Clocks, who along with the seraph Israfel, has placed something magic inside of Beauty when she was born. The two hover over her via a magic pool, hoping to protect her from harm and guide her to a safe place.

Beauty escapes from the beautiful Westfaire – with the intention of finding her mother- only to be kidnapped by documentary filmmakers from the twenty-first century.

Whoa, whoa I can hear you saying. Are you serious?

I am. But its good, believe me, its really good. And by the time she gets kidnapped by this group of documentary filmmakers, you are so absorbed in the story that you just think: My god! Yes it’s weird, but what will our spunky heroine do next?
And so you read on.

The documentary filmmakers are from the 21rst century and they are mucking around in the 14th century, hoping to catch the enchantment of Westfaire, as the magic roses clamber over its walls, calling it the ‘last bit of magic.’ They drag Beauty back to the 21rst, then to the 20th, where she becomes educated beyond her centuries and sees what humans have made of their world. In the 21rst, there are cement buildings and no outside. The thousands of people live in tiny cells and are numbered and rationed food wafers and drinking water. There is no land, oceans and no animals left. All food and anything else worth having has gone to ‘Fidipur’ which Beauty thinks of as a sort of deity, until she realizes it is a slurred version of ‘Feed-the-Poor.’

This is tragic to Beauty, (as it should be to us all) to see the environment destroyed, and to face things like institutionalization, rape, and the fact that people are used to it and don’t bat an eyelash. She points out the horror she sees all around her in one very poignant moment.

She has entered her freshman year of college and been asked out repeatedly by this author, Barrymore Gryme. He writes horror novels and has a rather simplistic view of his work, telling her that ‘they make lots of money to buy nice things, so what’s wrong with that?’

I can think of several replies to give this patronizing asshole, but Beauty, although sensitive and plucky, is not over-bright, or perhaps, she too just writes better than she talks:

“I bought another of Barry’s books, to see if I could read it all the way through. I got about a hundred pages into it and then I had to stop. I’ve seen people die. I saw the goldsmith Papa put in the dungeon, when he was almost dead. He had been my friend, and I saw him when they took him out, saw his bones showing through his skin, and the sores on him, and the places where the rats had chewed him. I saw a thief whipped to death once. I’ve seen men hanged. It’s horrible, seeing that, but not as horrible as this book, because in this book, you’re supposed to like seeing it, like reading what happens to the people. You can tell the way it’s written you’re supposed to lick it up, like something juicy.”

From Beauty’s growing awareness that all is not right with the world, her adventures lead her from this century back to her own, where she bears a child and abandons that child – unable to really love her because she is the product of a brutal rape.

She goes from there to a dream world called Chinanga, where she meets her mother, to Ylles, her mother’s country. Finally, in Ylles, Beauty begins get a better grasp on who she is – and who her mother is.

Beauty’s mother is a Sidhe (pronounced Shee)– a fairy woman, and the main thing to understand about the Sidhe is that they don’t have kids and they suffer from severe psychological paranoia. Every seven years, the Sidhe pay a teind to the Dark Lord. They do this because years ago, some troublemakers stirred the pot by telling them that the Holy One loved man more than them, and to keep man at bay, they should rely on the Dark Lord’s protection. The seraphs (otherwise known as Angels) disagreed and went off to create their own world, and the Sidhe stayed behind and told themselves a lot of lies about how wonderful they were. Beauty gradually learns this story between hanging around in Ylles and going on moonlight rides and bathing naked with a lot of semi-creepy fairy guys.

After a series of mishaps, where her mother becomes the tiend to hell, Beauty goes back to her own world and finds herself, not only middle-aged, but her daughter grown up and more than resembling the story of Cinderella. Having lived in the 20th century and seen Walt Disney, Beauty recognizes the similarities and asks Carabosse to explain it. The old fairy tells her that legends tend to gather around families. Beauty plays the fairy godmother to her wayward daughter, and by doing so, ends up the grandmother of Snow White. I think that this bit of Tepper’s invention is probably my favorite. She weaves it so perfectly, using mythology, Irish folklore,and the classic Grimms brothers to create a very convincing portrait of Beauty’s legacy.

Beauty also runs across Giles, her old beau from way back when she was fifteen, and the two are able to grow old together peacefully for some time, until Giles comes down with pneumonia. Instead of letting him die, Beauty takes him to Westfaire, and lets him sleep, hoping to preserve him from death.

With no Giles, back she goes to Ylles and since she left under bad circumstances, the King of the Sidhe has it in for her. Seven years have passed and guess who gets it in the end? That’s right. Our Beauty. They hand her over to the Dark Lord. Tepper’s vision of hell is one of the most terrifying and thought provoking I’ve come across in all literature.

In hell, she finds all the horrors that plagued her in life, imaginary or not, are real. The author she found so disgusting in the 20th is there, tortured by demons of his own making.

“Barrymore Gryme has been put in the cell with me.
“Do I know you?” he screamed at me.
One eye hung on his cheek, that cheek gnawed open so that the teeth showed through. I shuddered, sickened, put my hands out and healed him. I am half-fairy. I can do that. He was naked. His white, pouchy flesh was covered in scabs and bruises. Parts of him are mangled. Touching him is like touching something long dead.
When did you die,” I asked.
“Die, Die,” he screamed at me. “I’m not dead. I wish I were dead.”
“You’re in hell,” I told him. “The hell you made. Did you believe in it, when you made it?”
He turned his face into the corner of wherever we are and wept. I tried to find a way out, but I cannot get away from him. My pain and disgust are part of the tiend. They amuse the Dark Lord who is disgusted at nothing, who feels no pain, but who relishes it in others.
“Hold on,” the voices say, breathing cool, fresh air upon me. Offering me cool, fresh water.
Later, I saw Barry watching me. “You’re beautiful,” he said in wonder.
“I am not beautiful,” I told him, stripping the glamour away so that he could see what I really am. He did not see. The Dark Lord will not let him see. Or perhaps he sees too well.
“You glow. You shine. Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “I won’t hurt you. I am a decent man.”
I laughed. I laughed until I cried.”

Tepper has you thinking of magic in terms of butter that has been spread very thin. The closer you get to the end of the world, the thinner the magic is. In order to keep things harmonious, magic should be spread evenly, and not used up before its too late. There’s a great deal about the church stealing magic from the world, and that the people who most want to save the world will end up doing the most harm through misguided principles. Tepper sums it up with a few well-chosen phrases. Even after having read it over and over, I have trouble reading this without it touching me deeply:

“We have been thwarted at every turn by god. Not the real God. a false one which has been set by man to expedite his destruction of the earth. He is the gobble-god who bids fair to swallow everything in the name of a totally selfish humanity. His ten commandments are me first (let me live as I please) humans first (let all other living things die for my benefit) sperm first (no birth control), birth first (no abortions), males first (no women’s rights), my culture/tribe/language/religion first (separatism/terrorism), my race first (no human rights), my politics first (lousy liberals/rotten reactionaries) , my country first (wave the flag, the flag, the flag) , and above all, profit first.
We worship the gobble-god. We burn forests in his name. We kill whales and dolphins in his name. We pave prairies in his name. We have retarded babies in his name. We sell drugs in his name. We set bombs in his name. We worship him everywhere. We call him by different titles and commit blasphemies in the name of worship.
We were given magic to use in creating wonder, and the gobble-god has sucked it dry.His followers reject mystery and madness and marvel. They cannot tolerate questions. They can believe any answer, no matter how false, so long as it is a certainty nailed firmly to the cross of money. They yearn for the rapture to come, without knowing they have killed rapture forever. Fidipur is what is to come, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, will not forgive mankind for that.”

Beauty is swept along by the tides, never quite getting what she wants,and always seeking the love and affection of her mother. Always trying to do the best thing. I love the part when Puck admonishes her to “take affection from those who’d give it to you gladly” and to stop trying for the love of someone (her mother) who just doesn’t really give a damn about her. But even that turns out all right in the end, with Beauty realizing that her mother has ‘never wished her harm’ and that ‘sometimes its all we can do, not to wish our children harm.’

In the end the Sidhe and the Seraph join together to fight the Dark Lord. The documentary people show up and try to film the last of the magic, but Beauty and Carabosse forbid them to do it, standing in their way. The book ends in hope, telling the reader that there is still time to change our future and our children’s future.
That there is still time for mystery and magic and wonder.

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