Fuse #8

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Review of the Day: Bella At Midnight

Hello, Diane Stanley. You're looking well today. Could it be the result of a new haircut? A new shirt? Or could it be the fact that you've just written a work of fiction that is getting resounding, unending, and universal applause? I think that might be the case. You look at "Bella At Midnight" and you don't exactly know what to think. It's a nice cover and all, but is it any good? Well, there's a starred review of it in Kirkus, a starred review of it in Booklist, and a starred review of it in School Library Journal. So, yes, it is indeed good. More importantly, it does something that I would have seriously doubted possible until this time. It takes that old chestnut of a Cinderella myth, pumps it full of new life and vitality, and sends it spinning off into the ether like some kind of newfangled original tale. I still had qualms with some aspects of the storytelling, but for three-dimensional characters, magnificent plotting, and a great bit of writing through and through, "Bella At Midnight" is near impossible to beat.

The child was unwanted. Her mother had died in childbirth and her father wanted nothing to do with her, so unbalanced was he by his wife's death. So it was that Isabel (nicknamed Bella) was taken from her father's home and tended to by a peasant wetnurse by the name of Beatrice who had lately tended to the prince himself. Prince Julian, the third son in his family, often comes back to visit this wetnurse of his, and over the years it becomes clear that the person he seeks most often on his visits is Bella. But it isn't until Bella is a teenager that she is told the truth about herself. The peasant family who has loved her all these years? Not her family. Without any advance notice, Bella is shipped away from everyone and everything she has ever loved to live with a father she's never known alongside a new stepmother and stepsister. Sound familiar? The story of Cinderella has been retold for a new generation and with it comes a story full of intrigue, miracles, magic, and even a pair of tiny glass slippers. It's all here. What's remarkable is how Stanley manages to incorporate all these details and never loose sight of her own original story.

In this book, each chapter is told from a different person's point of view. Once in a while a singler person's P.O.V. will occur twice in a row, but usually that's out of sheer narrative necessity. What this multiple-narrative really manages to do is give almost everyone a voice. If Bella's stepmother is vicious or her stepsister proud, you learn why that might be from their separate stories. Talk about well-rounded storytelling! Not everyone gets a voice, I'll admit. We never really get inside of Bella's father's head (thankfully!) but we can see rather clearly why he acts the way he does. And any author that is able to make a privileged prince of pure heart and mind sound like someone you'd actually want to hang out with (to say nothing of perfect beautiful Bella) is an author of finely honed writing skills indeed. Actually, extra kudos to Stanley for giving Bella a backbone and having her save the day in a particularly dramatic way at the story's end. I've always been sick of Cinderella stories where the protagonist just sits around waiting for good fortune to fall into her lap.

Then take into account the way Stanley has incorporated everything from the original Cinderella myth alongside works like Shakespeare's, "The Tempest". When we first meet the meekest of Bella's stepsisters we hit a chapter that begins with, "My father lies below the sea. Crabs scuttle over him and scatter his bones. Beside his remains, half buried in the sand, lie trinkets he was bringing home for me". Ariel's song anyone? "Full fathom five thy father lies", and all that? There are multiple examples of intelligent referencing in this book, but never presented in such a way that they jar with the book itself.

With all these laudable qualities you might wonder how anyone could find ANYTHING to object to in this book. Admittedly, I was disinclined to say anything against "Bella", but there was one repeating and ridiculous aspect to Stanley's writing. It involves her children. Now I am perfectly aware that this story takes place in some distant past and that long ago kids were required to become adults much faster than they are today. Just the same, how likely does it seem to you that a ten-year-old conversing with a seven-year-old should say something along the lines of, "And then, Bella, I was not satisfied with merely playing a great hero... Is that not prideful enough for you? Can you picture me riding into the midst of a battle and bringing armies to their knees?"? The seven-year-old Bella's reply? "If God willed it, you could! You have a pure heart, Julian, as the Worthy Knight is said to have. God could make you a champion if it was needful". I am willing to suspend my disbelief a rather great ways, but this conversation doesn't read like that of a pair of children. It reads like a pair of twenty-somethings. And, considering the course it takes, rather wise twenty-somethings at that. I've always had a dislike of books in which kids don't act or speak like real children (hence my tempestuous relationship with E.L. Konigsburg). "Bella At Midnight", commits this crime multiple times. Fortunately, by page 66 these too-knowledgeable kids have grown into their flowery tongues and the book progresses at a rapid clip.

There's something wonderful about Cinderella stories. They speak to a universal desire to be recognized beyond the state of our birth. I daresay that no author (until now, of course) has ever given a Cinderella story such care and love as is found in this newest children's book. Kids with a penchant for fairy tales (perhaps of the Donna Jo Napoli variety) will find Stanley's title infinitely accessible. She really makes you believe in the world that she has conjured up. A wonderful addition to any library and a truly enjoyable read.


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