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Beauty, by Sheri S. Tepper

January 16, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Beauty, by Sheri S. Tepper. Spectra (1992). Paperback, 496 pages.


Sheri Tepper is an accomplished science fiction writer whose books I have long enjoyed. Her retelling of the myth of sleeping beauty was a new read for me, and it did not disappoint me. In this book, Tepper addresses our all-too-real challenge of the dwindling of magic and beauty, and the loss of the natural world which she believes they require. Her concern underlies events in the book, but it never interferes with the story of Beauty and her adventures.

Tepper opens her story in 14th-century England, a time when magic and beauty were alive and well. Her narrator, Beauty, is nearing her 16th birthday as the book begins. Choosing a loquacious adolescent to tell her story allows Tepper to indulge in sumptuous descriptions. Fun, but just as I began to wonder if I could tolerate this fairy tale world for almost 500 pages, Beauty is swept up in adventures which takes her through a variety of centuries and worlds. As she travels, she loses her teenage voice, gains wisdom, and has an impact on the worlds which she inhabits.

The central portion of the book is good, but when Beauty is captured, Tepper’s writing suddenly became moving and profound. She writes passionately of the power of words to create horror; to make the unspeakable speakable and thus easy for us to accept. But for Tepper, words also carry the power of survival and escape. Her book ends on a note of guarded hope.

For the last couple of centuries, the myth of sleeping beauty has been part of western civilization’s definition of womanhood. Women were supposed to be totally passive, virtually dead until a prince kisses us, gives us meaning and the resources to live with him happily ever after. The popularized version of Freudian thought reinforced such thinking in 20th century USA. Although this myth’s power has waned in some circles today, it seems to live on in the Evangelical community, fueling opposition to expanded options for women.

Yet Tepper’s retelling of sleeping beauty is not primarily about gender. Here and there she comments on and challenges conventional gender assumptions. The prince wakens the sleeping beauty by taking her out of the enchanted castle. He happens to be kissing her at the time which mistakenly leads him to believe in the power of his kiss. But Tepper never plays with alternative gender definitions as some of the books been read for this challenge do.

Beauty is no passive sleeping beauty. She is a strong woman who makes things happen, but she lacks the deliberate commitment to all women that defines feminism. As a child, she enjoys posing as Havoc, the miller’s son, to escape the limits of being a girl/woman, but she a clearly and rather conventionally a woman, and a straight monogamous one at that. (In her loving commitment if not in her actual behavior.) Tepper also gives a wonderful, nuanced descriptions of Beauty as a mother and as a daughter in which she forgives both her mother and herself as a mother.

Two thirds of the way through the book Beauty considers what it means to be a woman, but she does not ponder over the gender roles created by society. She focuses instead on the physical vulnerability of all women who can be raped and impregnated against their will. Just as nature can be raped, although Tepper does not belabor the point.

Beauty lives until she is well over a hundred (her travel between centuries make the calculation unclear), and Tepper’s depiction of her as she ages is rare model for us all. Beauty struggles with her inevitable aches and limitations and with the loss of her stunning appearance. She experiences a love beyond the urgencies of romance and physical passion. Most of all she remains the primary force in her own life right to the end, as she attempts to preserve all that she loves from destruction.

Stereotypes like the myth of sleeping beauty can harm and limit us. They can cause us to be used as objects rather than allowing us to be full human beings. Tepper realizes that there is a link between how our society regards women and how we regard the natural world, magic and beauty. But she never allows her “message” to interfere with telling a good story

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