Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Gail Carson Levine’s Fairest (Part 1: The Bad, The Ugly)

Some backstory: Over the holidays, I took home Stephen King’s On Writing and Gail Carson Levine’s Writing Magic: Creating Stories that Fly. (Their joint review is to come.) I’d never read anything by King before, so my decision to pick up his book was influenced by its (well-deserved) prominence in the writing community. I selected GCL’s book because I loved Ella Enchanted. When I noticed she’d written two more books, I knew I had to work my way through them before I tackled her thoughts on writing. Thus, my part 1 review of Fairest. Part 2 is here. (Ever’s review is next.)

Again, I’m starting a review by making comparisons. Though I hate to pit these two books against each other (it doesn’t seem fair), I can’t help it: Ella Enchanted is a reimagined Cinderella story while Fairest is Snow White retold. Both are the products of the same author and both take place in the same fictional realm. Since GCL delivered one of my favorite books and one of my favorite heroines in Ella, it’s all the more disappointing that Fairest fell short. (Spoilers like whoa.)

Compelling premises and compelling characters feed each other, creating the plot with their interaction. Let’s map Ella Enchanted. Premise: Ella is cursed with being perfectly obedient. She not only has to listen to whatever she is told, she is magically constrained to do that literal action. Main Character: Ella is spunky, rebellious, and clever. These traits have developed from years of fighting with her curse. She wants to be able to live a normal life, to choose when she is obedient. Secondary Characters: Ella’s nasty stepfamily, the flighty fairy who cursed her, her sassy fairy godmother, her absent father, and her love interest Prince Char. Plot: Ella lives with her petty stepfamily and is obedient even to their insults. (Clean, shut up, go away, jump off a bridge, etc.) Needless to say, she has to keep her curse a secret. (What happens if her stepfamily finds out? What if someone more evil than her stepfamily finds out? What will she be forced to do?) She gets tired of living obediently and sets off to find the elusive fairy who cursed her. (Where will she go? Who will she meet? Will she be in danger? Will she find the fairy? Will the fairy lift the spell?) On her journey, she meets a Prince. (Will they fall in love? Will she tell him? Will they live happily ever after? What happens next?) So, the basic plot of Cinderella still happens, but the new premise deepens it, makes it more interesting.

Now, for Fairest. Character: Aza’s most pressing concern is that she is “ugly.” Really. The first few chapters exist to show, over and over again, exactly how ugly, how ungainly, how large, how coarse, how clumsy, and how repulsive she is. At first, I thought this was a case of “the lady doth protest too much.” Aza’s probably just plain. She could be one of those “wrong standards of beauty for the society she lives in” ugly. No, there are more pages devoted to her ugliness. Even her parents and siblings confirm it. (To preempt being seen by the customers of her parents’ inn, Aza has a habit of putting her hand in front of her face while talking to people. A writing professor once told me to try and perform any action that you write. If you feel silly or unnatural, drop it.) Her extreme hideousness is a key factor in every interpersonal interaction, except when she meets the kind King (who spends most of the book in a coma), the really bland Prince, and the Prince’s annoying dog. Another trait emphasized ad nauseum is Aza’s voice. She doesn’t just have a good voice. She has one of the best voices ever in the history of the kingdom and can perform an incredible vocal trick that no one else in the kingdom can do.

Premise: There is none. No “what if.” The premise of the original Snow White is “what if a prettier woman comes along when a wicked queen wants to be the fairest in the land,” but that’s gone. What’s left is a pretty thin plot (with a heavy-handed moral): Does Aza not believe in her musical talent because of her self-esteem issues? Does her unique technique of “illusing” (ill-using) get exploited by someone more powerful? Is this powerful person pretty?* Do they both get found out in a really public way? Does this result in dire consequences for the heroine when it’s not really her fault? Does Aza transform into a beautiful version of herself at some point? Does she eventually learn the error of her ways and choose to go back to her true form? Does the Prince (who inexplicably mistreated her to further the plot) say he’s always loved her just as she is? (Is the romance thinly drawn?) Is there a lesson here? You tell me.

Look, GCL. If you want to write a book about how inner beauty is everything, at least give us a heroine we can root for and not a two-characteristic cardboard cutout. A standard plot can be saved if we care about the person living through it. Let there be something to appreciate about the interior world of your main character! Self-loathing types and annoying fools can be fantastic if the author feels affection for them.* I felt and feel no affection for Aza. Perhaps Levine wasn’t feeling her either.

It kind of makes me wonder why she wrote the book in the first place. Because she already had a Cinderella story? Because she missed Ella and Frell? (Embedding your inferior companion novel with sly references your Newbury Honor book only makes reader miss that great book.) Because she wanted to insert some embarrassing songs into her narrative? Because she had something to “teach?” (More on that later.) From where I’m sitting, there was no good reason. (Maybe some: A couple of parts I liked.)

*I actually felt something for evil queen Ivi. A beautiful girl with a mediocre voice thrust into a kingdom of singers who judge personalities by musical ability? Way intriguing. She was foolish and cruel and vain and misguided, but GCL handled her with more care than Aza. Then, she ruins it. Turns out Ivi’s not really beautiful. She’s actually taking a pretty potion because she’s unhappy with her plainness and just wants to be loved. So again we have an insecure girl who wants to be pretty with a special talent (“fashion”). Two sides of the same coin? Yeesh.

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