Note: This post will likely contain plot spoilers of the book. I know some people don’t like reviews that contain them, but in this case, they’re essential to my evaluation of the novel.
When I finished Gail Carson Levine’s YA novel Fairest, my initial reaction was, “Finally.” Not because I was glad the book was over but because I’d finally found a well written novel where an “unbeautiful” (by this, I mean a character whose physical appearance deviates from beauty norms in a significant way, rather than one who’s simply “not pretty enough”) heroine does not become more conventionally attractive by the end of the book.
Fairest is a retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, with one notable exception: By the societal standards in the story, Aza (the main character) is flat-out ugly. There are a number of reasons for this, but one I found most relevant to my world is that she’s decidedly larger — both in terms of height and width — than most people. Aza describes herself as large-boned, round, awkward, and chubby, and recounts a number of guests (her family owns an inn) refusing to let her wait on them — basically, refusing to let her do her job — because she’s ugly. They also liken Aza to an ogre, who, in the book, are considered not only ugly but also deceptive and evil. In short, Aza experiences very real discrimination and othering based on her looks.
When she does arrive at the castle — because it’s a retelling of Snow White, after all — comments like, “‘It’s unfortunate Lady Aza’s mother was a hippopotamus'” and, “‘Milady, you are vast,'” — are some of the more minor ones. The queen herself, in the same sentence she claims Aza as a friend, refers to her as “the oaf.” At one point, Aza’s appearance, with a particular emphasis on her size, gets her thrown in prison.
This hit me as a satisfying departure from most young adult heroines. Not because it shows sugar-coated positive portrayals, but rather because it doesn’t. In the past, I’ve typically seen three physical categories for female (who have always been portrayed as both female-bodied and woman-identifying, which is its own issue) protagonists:
- The protagonist is strikingly beautiful, whether in a conventional or an exotic way.
- When the protagonist is described as not pretty, it often means “sort of plain-looking” or not as pretty as [insert other character here], rather than that she’s ugly.
- Even if she’s conventionally unattractive (ugly, fat, etc.) at the beginning of the story, she moves toward being more conventionally attractive by the end.
Not that there aren’t good stories with beautiful and plain protagonists, but since I so rarely read any that run contrary to points 1 and 2 above, I’m always excited to find one. Sadly, though, even most of those books align with point 3 by the end. And again, not that there can’t be good stories with a “now I am thinner/prettier/etc. and also happier” conclusion — but it’s so vindicating to find one that basically goes, “I still look the same and got my happily-ever-after(ish) anyway.”
So I love that in time, Aza comes to realize that while beauty itself isn’t a bad thing, “[t]he pursuit of beauty, however, had been disastrous.” Which is kind of an easy realization to come to when one’s preoccupation with beauty rendered one susceptible to the influences of a jealous queen, a magic mirror (who’s kind of an asshole, by the way), and a poisoned apple. My favorite line comes a few chapters after that realization, when Aza looks in a non-magic, non-asshole mirror. “I had the face and shape I would keep always. I would have to learn to accept it.” As someone who almost never reads such acceptance of all types of faces and bodies in mainstream fiction, that validation is nothing short of beautiful.