This collection is subtitled ‘Fairy Tales Retold,’ but the nine stories it contains are less retellings than reflections and reactions, along with a few refutations. They depend on pre-existing familiarity with the source tales for much of their resonance. In fact, a few of the stories, such as “Charm” and “Bones,” begin with a variation of the phrase, “She knew the story” —though whether or not “she” wants to be in it varies.
The most well-known versions of many of the tales that form the basis of this collection, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Cinderella,” heavily emphasize a romantic relationship between the heroine and a wealthy man whom she meets in the course of her adventures. The emphasis of the stories in The Rose and the Beast is different, focusing both on the heroine's interior journey and her relationships with the other women around her. Even the stories lacking in women to interact with the heroine (“Snow,” “Ice”) focus more on ideas of family than romance.
Along with the above shift in perspective, there is a shift in setting. Instead of the quasi-medieval forests and castles that have become traditional for fairy tale retellings, most of this collection is grounded in California, specifically the Los Angeles area, though the name of the city is never mentioned. The shift does not mean the atmosphere is any less dreamlike. The Southern California of these stories is feverishly vivid, an appropriately wild and hothouse setting for heroines who are half-flower, half-animal, as the title suggests. Again, I suspect familiarity with the fairy tale of Los Angeles itself, particularly Hollywood, enriches the reading experience.
This is not a collection for those impatient with metaphor, nor for those who prefer a straightforward, minimalist approach to prose. Block's style varies between lyrical and brutally plain, laden with imagery which can be read on several levels. There are stories within stories, as in this passage in “Glass”: “The candlesticks like crystal balls, many-faceted; though the girl could not read her own future in them, perhaps if she looked closely enough she could see the young bride tearing away the tissue and holding them up to the light to see herself being imagined by this girl, now.” (p.58)
The first-person point of view narrative of certain stories is more successful at individualization than the third-person omniscient POV of others, but Block's voice always suits her subject matter and builds a connection throughout the collection. While these stories could be read alone, it's clear they are presented together as an interrogation not just of the fairy tales on which they're individually based, but of fairy tale as a narrative genre. Block uses this collection both to examine the instructive aspects of fairy tales--the way they are used to teach--and to obliquely discuss the more unjust circumstances of women's lives. Through her choices of what to change and eliminate in each story, she raises questions of how well fairy tales answer the needs of their modern audience, and how well they can do so within traditional constraints.
Overall, The Rose and the Beast seems intended for a readership already familiar with the tales on which it's based, a readership with views of their own to be engaged by Block's interpretations. Those without a solid knowledge of the specific fairy tales Block uses as the basis for the collection will most likely be left considerably confused by her extrapolations. Knowledge of the most common tropes and motifs in fairy tales would also be of use in deciphering Block's arguments about what they represent and why. None of which is to say the stories aren't beautiful and entertaining fantasies, but their full effect depends on recognition of their true nature.
J.C. Runolfson inherited her mother's passion for collecting fairy tales, which she enjoys deconstructing. Her short fiction has appeared in Reflection's Edge. By the whim of the Navy, J.C. currently lives in San Diego, California.