This book is absolutely perfect for people who loved fairy tales as kids and now hate them for their lack of realism.
Plot: Pedro grew up in the Canary Islands, abandoned by his birth parents and reviled by most of the population as a result of having hypertrichosis, a condition by where hair grows constantly across his entire body and face. Colonialism being what it was, Pedro was then abducted as a child and brought to the Kind of France as a fun gift – a sort of “look as this weird thing I found?! Isn’t it WILD?!” And the King absolutely loses it and has Pedro set up in his household, giving him the same education and resources he gives his own kids, in exchange for having to perform Tamed Savage for the joy of the aristocratic masses. The Queen too is enamored, and like any good royal, she’s never found a pleasure she didn’t want more of. This is where Catherine, an impoverished beauty in need of a dowry to save her family comes in, and the two are wed, to make more hairy babies for the queen to display. Shenanigans ensue.
Does this sound like Beauty and the Beast yet? Are you thinking that perhaps, this is a more realistic take on the Beauty and the Beast tale? It isn’t. Greeley tells us in the author’s note that in fact this story may well have been what inspired the fairy tale to begin with. This story is a fictional take on the real story of Pedro Gonzales and Catherine Raffelin, who were pawns of the French court and then other European aristocrats throughout their lives.
Though it does follow the tropes of a romance – they do of course fall in love and do find moments of happiness, I would not consider this A Romance. There is no HEA here, and the moments of joy the characters experienced seem like tiny glimmers interspersed with much longer phases of terrible, awful things happening to them that they mostly have no control over. This is what I think people who hate Romance novels would actually really love about this book. There is no happy ending, there is only love and pain and happiness and sorrow and generally more of the bad stuff than the good. It’s about people trying really hard to make the best of their truly garbage circumstances, but who may have had a real shot at a happy life if they didn’t live it like cowards.
And that’s sort of where I land on the story. These two people are ones that have been, before they ever met, completely crushed by the world, and being together does not give them any of the things love is supposed to – courage, curiosity, strength. They just continue being crushed for the remainder of their lives, but now they have someone, literally just some random person, to hold onto. They don’t grow or develop depth. And they’re the only ones we spend any time with, so it’s not like you can say “well the characterization is tepid and uninspired, but the plot is where the book shines” because there is none, really. A couple things happen to them (always to them) but this isn’t a plot book. I will say there are a lot of reviews on Goodreads that say that they never got a sense of the characters, and I can’t say I agree. I got a good enough sense of who they were despite not having pages and pages of introspection. Even where I strongly disagreed with their choices, I understood why they did what they did, which tells me that Greeley did enough for me to understand them. I think what those reviewers were actually picking up on was the problem I identify here – which is not that they are two dimensional, but rather that we expect characters to have agency, and these had none. They could have been replaced with lampshades and the story wouldn’t have changed.
Some books really just create a vibe, and this is one of them. If you’ve read and liked The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow you’ll probably like this one as well. Strongly suggest picking up the first few pages of the book – if you like the writing style, you’ll probably be all in notwithstanding its other deficiencies.
TW: marital rape, child abduction, child abandonment, child death, children being taken away from the parents, slavery, depression.