Beauty is a complicated fantasy novel about fairy tales, feminism, environmentalism and the end of the world. It involves fairies, angels, humans, and time travel, and places a heavy emphasis on darkness vs. light, on creativity and destruction. There is a whole helluva lot going on, sometimes maybe more than the author can handle, but author Tepper, who died last year (because of course she did, it was 2016), certainly demonstrates great passion for her subject matter.
The novel begins in 14th century Westfaire with 16-year-old Beauty, our narrator, keeping a journal of all her thoughts and daily activities. Her mother Elladine disappeared long ago and her father the duke is much distracted by pilgrimages and an upcoming marriage. Tepper’s Westfaire is a delightful little kingdom with colorful characters galore, including Beauty’s dour and severe aunts, a love interest named Giles and a best friend who looks as if she could be Beauty’s twin. Through eavesdropping and a surprising discovery within the castle, Beauty learns that her mother Elladine was a fairy, is still alive and is waiting for her. We also see, although Beauty does not yet, that there are two mysterious creatures watching over Beauty and trying to guide her toward her destiny.
For the first 70 pages or so (of 400), while Beauty is still in Westfaire, Beauty seems like a pretty harmless YA-type novel. The reader gets a little background on Westfaire, plus preparation for the duke’s upcoming nuptials and Beauty’s deteriorating relationship with her prospective evil step-mother. All good stuff. But then the curse placed on Beauty at her christening (a la Sleeping Beauty) and the arrival of a bizarre set of time travelers from the future signal an abrupt shift in both narrative and tone. Beauty is taken off to a dystopian future which seems to be near the end of times, and the ugliness of the environment involves both the landscape and interpersonal relations. In this future, food is no longer grown on farms but processed in factories as animal and plant species fall to extinction. Of the time travelers, one named Bill seems to be a decent fellow who tries to protect Beauty, but another named Jaybee is a predator with evil designs on her. Beauty, Bill and a few others use the time machine to travel back to the 1990s to stay. Beauty begins to learn some of her fairy abilities while also learning about modern society and history. One particularly disturbing incident will be the impetus for Beauty to learn to use her abilities to transport herself backward in time and even into alternate worlds, such as fairy where her mother is.
When Beauty finally arrives in fairy, she discovers a land of great beauty that, like earth, seems to be threatened with extinction. The reasons for this are complicated and involve some tricky theology and folk lore. Fairies are real, as is the Holy One, and angels and humans. The Holy One made all, but there is a deal where fairies don’t age or diminish unless they fail to hold up their end of the bargain. This is where Tepper’s novel gets complicated and she lost me a bit. The overall message though is that God and man alone have the power to create. Man dies, unlike fairies who live forever and maintain their youth and beauty but cannot create. The ability to create, however, is a double edged sword — humans can create things of beauty and of evil, and the destruction of fairy seems to be linked to some kind of showdown between good and evil.
The fairy/human story and the philosophy behind it was a weakness for the story, as far as I’m concerned, and since it’s related to the ending of the story and Beauty’s destiny, that is a shame. There were sections of the novel that just seemed interminable and I kept wishing the author would get to the point. And yet, when Tepper gets away from the 20th century and fairy, and when she gets back to Westfaire and Beauty’s real world, the pace picks up and the story line is engaging. Tepper manages to incorporate several major fairy tales into her story, including Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and the frog prince, and she does so in a most charming way. I spent most of the novel wishing Beauty would spend more time at Westfaire and a little frustrated at how things turned out there.
Apparently Sheri Tepper’s novels are known for incorporating feminist and environmental themes, and I do admire the way she does this in Beauty. Now more than ever, the message of protecting the planet, safeguarding endangered species, and working to prevent overpopulation, pollution, etc. is timely. We are in worse shape now than we were when Tepper wrote the novel. And she makes Beauty a strong and independent character whose physical beauty seems to diminish in the eyes of some as she ages but whose spirit is always lovely. Beauty is subject to sexism, abuse and limitations due to her sex in pretty much every century and land she visits, but she is the agent of her own destiny. She uses her own intelligence and calls on others as needed, but ultimately calls the shots for herself. All in all, a mixed bag of a novel.