I am an avid re-reader and always have been. Being stuck in Covid isolation during the first wave, I had time to revisit some of my favourite comfort reads. So I thought that I would share some of the books that I return to at loose reading ends or in tough times in my life.
One of my earliest comfort reads was Robin McKinley’s Beauty; a lovely retelling of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Most years as a child I stayed with my grandparents for a week in the June holidays and my mother always sent me with a pile of library books. I still remember picking up Beauty from this pile that first time and being entranced by the cover which showed intricately carved gates opening onto formal gardens and, in the distance, the Beast’s castle.
McKinley’s take on the tale switches things around so that Beauty is the ugly duckling, youngest sister in a close-knit family fallen on hard times. Awkward and clumsy and, in her own mind, deeply unattractive, she is obsessed with books and horses. McKinley dispenses with the Lear narrative of the jealous older sisters and tediously virtuous youngest sister. Beauty’s older sisters, Grace and Hope are beautiful and kind and baffled by Beauty’s desire for a university education. The change to a happy, cohesive family provides a strong emotional thread throughout the novel as Beauty suffers deeply, and much more understandably, from home sickness at the Beast’s castle. She is also a much more attractive and interesting character as a result. The original Beauty, who appears to have no idea that her sisters hate her guts, is either spectacularly dim or an incredibly poor judge of character. Perhaps both.
Beauty invited me into a world with a library whose books hadn’t been written yet, an invisible staff of temperamental and fashion-conscious maids, and delicious food. I’m not a fan of heavily descriptive novels, but Robin McKinley evoked a place and atmosphere that made me wish that this world was real and that I could be transported into it, in the same way that I often checked the back of my wardrobe, just in case a door to Narnia had opened inside. The descriptions of the food and clothes, remain some of the most evocative for me, from Beauty’s favourite spice cake and tea ‘sweetened with orange peel, spiced with ginger’ to the changing colours of the Beast’s suits, ‘dark-red velvet, the colour of sunset and roses, and cream coloured lace.’ When the Disney movie came out a year or so later, I was unimpressed. Where were all the quirky, nerdy details? And the Beast! McKinley’s Beast was intelligent, witty, kind and deeply unhappy, there was no way that Disney’s Beast could live up to him.
It’ll be no surprise to you, dear readers, when you learn that 8-year-old me identified strongly with Beauty, the misfit who loved her books. No one at school wanted to read books or play make believe at recess, they just played handball. I wasn’t good at handball, I was good at reading and I quickly learnt that great Australian school yard lesson, if you aren’t good at sport you aren’t good at life. That lesson obviously doesn’t still sting all these years later! And so I never took a book to school because I knew that reading a book at lunchtime would be social death. I feel a little sad, looking back, for that misfit book nerd who stood in line to play handball badly, hating every minute of it. But when I got home there were all those magical rooms, in the Beast’s castle to explore, and gorgeous dresses to pine for. After a hard day’s handball, Beauty promised me that good things came to those bookish misfits and I was comforted. I never did stop being bored by the handball.