There are many ways to fracture a fairy tale. You can move it to a different time or place. You can genderswap the characters. You can go post-modern, and make some or all of the characters genre-savvy (always a personal favorite of mine). In The Language of Roses, Heather Rose Jones takes an entirely different tactic with the story of Beauty and the Beast. She keeps the basic fact of the story, but by adding characters and shifting established motivations, she makes something entirely new.
We start off with the bare bones of Beauty and the Beast. We have the dutiful daughter (Alys Levesque) who takes her father’s place in an enchanted manor, after he steals a rose from the residents. But this beauty is aromantic (probably asexual, too, but this isn’t the kind of story to make that distinction), which immediately makes for an interesting shift in dynamic. Then we have a nobleman (Philippe du Fortigny) cursed with a beastly form after insulting and angering one of the Fee (fairy-like beings), whose curse can only be lifted by love freely given and returned. But Philippe learns no lessons from his curse, and remains an unpleasant person, never mind his looks. The combination of those two changes would be enough to throw the story off its axis and create something new and interesting, but Jones doesn’t stop there.
There are a handful of new characters, each more interesting than the last. The most notable is Grace, Philippe’s sister. The same curse that is slowly turning him into a beast, turns her to stone with each passing day. Hers is a quiet, desperate presence, serving as an ally and guide for Alys. Grace knows how the curse happened, knows what is needed to free herself, yet never pressures Alys in any way. Her strength, loyalty, and bravery wins Alys’ friendship, and my respect. Then there is Eglantine, who Philippe courted thirty three years ago, whose presence is keenly felt through Grace’s memories and her own reverberating actions. And we mustn’t forget the rose itself, which started Alys on this journey.
This is not a straightforward narrative. While most of the book is from Alys’ point of view, she is not the only narrator, and while the others all know more about what is going on that Alys does, habits of secrecy prevent them from sharing too much, even in their own thoughts. It takes most of the book before we see how all of these various threads weave together. This can lead to some confusion on the first reading, but I found that my patience paid off in the end.
Beauty and the Beast has always been a story about looking beyond appearances (among other themes), but this version extends that far beyond the original scope. Neither Alys nor Grace nor even the rosebush are what they originally appear. While there is a romantic relationship, it’s not the one you expect. Not everyone earns forgiveness, or a happily ever after. Matters are not resolved in the way I anticipated. To say more of the ending would rob you of the discovery, but suffice it to say that everything comes to a very satisfying conclusion. I would highly recommend The Language of Roses for anyone who loves a fractured fairy tale, beautiful language, and lush mystery.