Debut Review: While Beauty Slept

November 26, 2015

This impressive debut novel is the first book I’ve read in a long time that made me feel a perfect balance of tension between wanting to keep reading and wanting to write because I’m so inspired by what I’m reading. When I read something this good, feeling exactly what the writer wants me to feel, it reminds me that I could inspire the same feelings in readers.

The tale of Sleeping Beauty is a common storyline, thanks to Disney and the continuous popularity of European fairy tales. With While Beauty Slept, Elizabeth Blackwell sucked me in with similarities to the original and yet a story so wholly different that I was pulled along, eager to see what unexpected places she was taking me to. And there were many!

The point of view is the first unexpected element: it’s narrated by Elise, a commoner who rises to become a lady in waiting for Sleeping Beauty’s queen mother. Beauty (Rose) herself isn’t even born until page 116. This is Elise’s story, which she’s telling to her great-granddaughter. The prologue and epilogue are the only places where we see Elise as an old woman, though she tells the story through the lens of time, often commenting on her own experiences and the things she felt when she was younger. The narration is completely authentic, even for someone like me who hesitates a little at first-person narration.

There’s no magic here, no good fairies versus bad fairies. The characters do talk about magic, and about Millicent’s reputation as a witch, but instead of a magical curse the curse that Millicent puts on Rose and her royal parents is
political. This is a literary fiction retelling, though it still has huge crossover appeal for genre readers such as myself.

I love reading books that break the rules, and here Blackwell shatters the old maxim show don’t tell. Her setup as an oral story told to a granddaughter is a perfect way to do so, and never once did I feel like I’m being preached to. Her precise descriptions of the city of St. Elsip, where most of the story takes place, combined with Elise telling us how the city made a farm girl like her feel, created an incredibly strong mental image for me. So strong, in fact, that I carried the image of St. Elsip into the next book I read and was disappointed when I realized that I had to leave it behind.

I won’t spoil the many plot twists that makes this story so original. Each one is perfectly devised and seems entirely inevitable when it happens, which shows a deft skill on Blackwell’s part. There are delightful nods to the fairy tale we all know throughout, which feel like an inside joke between the author and the reader. Thanks to these similarities and Blackwell’s engaging writing, While Beauty Slept is a book that I can press into almost anyone’s hands.

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