BY FRAN LANIADO
When I finished reading Beautiful by Fran Laniado, I had an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. Not because the book was rubbish. Quite the contrary, I had become so involved, so present with the characters that when the story ended, I didn’t know what do with myself. It was as if I had lost my companions – Eimear, Finn and the horse Eachann. Why did it have to end? I can only hope there’s to be a second book… Is there? 🙁
The story is a Beauty and the Beast retelling and before you roll your eyes, this is not a typical retelling.
The main character Eimear is a socially awkward fairy princess with a weird-looking face and white hair – and before you roll your eyes again, the hair is compared to an old woman’s, it’s hardly exotic.
The love-interest Finn is a beautiful cruel and vein prince from “The World” (human world) whom Eimear accidentally curses, turning him into a sight for sore eyes. But hey, mistakes happen.
The danger with involving a character cursed with ugliness is that it risks communicating favour in conventional beauty standards. Finn was never described in a way that could have been associated with real conditions that result in deformity. In fact, there was a sense of an otherworldly magic in his features.
In fact, what I appreciated most of all was that the majority of the supporting characters were beautiful except for the two main characters. Yes, take that Hollywood and conventional beauty standards. Think you can handle a supporting cast more beautiful than your stars? It’s a big ask, I know. It was hard enough with Ugly Betty, but I have faith in you. You will achieve it someday.
Putting looks and Hollywood aside, Eimear is exactly how I imagine Belle. I know she’s not Belle. She’s the enchantress. But her personality, the fact that she is clearly not neurotypical and that she’s curious but in an introverted manner, it’s exactly what I wanted in a retelling.
I also appreciated the nod to the original story when Eimear suggests she go find a “beauty” for Finn to help break the spell. In the original tale it’s a merchant who fetches the beauty. What’s even funnier is that Eimear is so earnest, even though the idea is absurd and Finn points that out. (Don’t worry, she doesn’t follow through).
Maybe this is me on a delusive tangent, but some scholars believe, as well as those in my community (I am autistic), that changelings were most likely autistic babies. Some believe that even fairies – what with their large ears, expressionless faces, wide apart eyes and high voices – were metaphors for those on the autism spectrum. I may be barking up the wrong tree, but Eimear’s love of people-watching, her love of music, her earnestness, how every emotion is concentrated only in her eyes, her lack of interest in socialising, parties and fashion – everything really – made me wonder if Eimear was autistic. For most of the book I just assumed the likeness was a coincidence, but when Eimear had the heart-to-heart with her mother about how she felt like an alien, I began to wonder if she was meant to be autistic.
Regardless of my wackadoodle theory, I thought Eimear was perfect. It’s not every day that I read a book in three days – mostly because I find it difficult to relate to many protagonists. It’s why I like Belle (Disney cartoon Belle). I mean, she likes books and solitude – an all-round sensible human being. It’s about time we had a Beauty and the Beast retelling with a proper Belle character. It’s a cause I feel passionately about. More stories with Eimears and Belles please!
And some nice sensitive Finns with proper interests like carving and woodwork. None of that “Look at me, I’m shirtless.” Or “I’m so broody and deep and I like my solitude, but hey I do small talk.”
Yeah, Finn’s cool. Apart from when he’s unwell, then he’s hot and sweaty (no swooning matter), but I won’t spoil it for you because you definitely have to read this. I’m calling to all Beauty and the Beast lovers – except those rare fans of Beastly (they tragically exist) – you all need to read this blessing of a book.
And if you’re looking for a heroine whose feelings of difference are not displaced, you’ve come to the right place. (And that kind of rhymed).
I kind of like the idea that changeling children were autistic babies. No more making them laugh with boiling water in an eggshell, because that really is your baby (fairytale reference where the woman had to make her changeling laugh to get the fairies to bring her real baby back). It sort of goes back to the idea that our brains work in a way that doesn’t make sense to neurotypicals, but could make their lives a whole lot easier if they allowed it. That’s like faerie lore. If you help them, they’ll help you. If you persecute them, they’ll learn to persecute you. Huh…maybe that’s a plot bunny for another story, maybe some kind of modern fairytale where autism is a metaphor…
(Although if that ever happens there needs to be some way to explain that it doesn’t make autism a superpower or a curse, but something that just makes a difference).