Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Summary: Aza has a beautiful voice in a country of singers, but others tend to notice only her physical unattractiveness.  She longs to make herself pretty through the use of magic, but will find her happily-ever-after only when she learns to recognize her own worth.  A retelling of “Snow White” and a companion book to Ella Enchanted.

Review: Fairy tales have traditionally utilized the physical appearances of characters to depict the states of their souls: beautiful faces denote characters of virtue and ugly faces characters of vice.  The tellers of these tales probably never intended to suggest that physical unattractiveness predisposes one to evil or that beauty makes a person good.  They probably meant only to create a system of symbolism that made the forces of good and evil easily identifiable for the audience.    Fairy tales, after all, speak to a part of us that longs to know good triumphs in the end.   Physical symbolism highlights the message of the story, leaving no room for ambiguity in the moral.

Modern audiences, however, tend to have less of an appreciation for allegorical symbolism than past ones, and fairy tales have suffered from criticism for their portrayals of good and evil characters.  I personally doubt that most children actually come to believe that all ugly people are evil (or even all stepmothers) simply because they have grown up with fairy tales, but I do believe children (and even older readers) often place themselves in the action of the story.  When princesses are invariably beautiful and virtuous and all princes handsome and daring, but the readers lack these qualities, barriers between the readers and the stories can result.  On melancholy days, readers may wonder why they were never gifted with the qualities that would make them a heroine or a hero.

Gail Carson Levine addresses these concerns in Fairest, where the heroine Aza possesses a beautiful voice, but an appearance that causes the guests at her family’s inn to request someone else wait on them when they see her.  In response, Aza develops an acute sensitivity to her appearance—a state of mind with which preteens and teenagers, bombarded with messages from the media as to how they ought to look, can readily identify.  She cleverly utilizes the story of “Snow White” to develop the themes of appearance and self-worth.  The story revolves around a mirror that no one should fully trust, raising the question of whether the reality Aza recognizes actually exists or whether it is only a perspective imposed upon her by others and her own inability to accept herself.  She lives, after all, surrounded by a society that equates beauty with goodness, thus making beauty the means to power and wealth.  Ivi, the character who fills the role of the vain and jealous queen, partly uses her own beauty to gain control of the country. In the end, Aza recognizes herself as a mirror image of the queen, since she, too, will go to extreme lengths in order to have others call her fair.  She discovers, however, that others appreciate her best when accepts herself for who she is.

Levine, however, certainly does not try to moralize in this story, and the story recommends itself as a fun adventure through magical lands full of danger and wonder.  Readers looking for an enjoyable fairy tale retold will revel in this offering, which has strong ties to the original story, but never finds itself fettered by them.  Only the constant singing mars the work.  Aza’s country is full of people who love music and consequently burst into song for all occasions–including their own arrests.  Perhaps I’m not imagining the scenes as the author intended, but I found some of the scenes ludicrous as a consequence.  Levine, however, remains a strong and inventive writer and I, in  turn, remain a devoted fan.

Published: 2006

 

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