Bella at Midnight, by Diane Stanley

Bella at Midnight

I’m going to warn you right now that this entire post is a spoiler.  If you would rather be surprised, I’ll cut to the chase: read this book.  Otherwise, read on and have the story (but not the book) spoiled.

Like many a Liberated Modern Woman, I am a card-carrying member of the Anti-Princess Camp, fighting the Good Fight against pinks, purples, high heels and crowns, waving copies of The Paper Bag Princess with evangelistic fervour, and doing my best to avert my gaze from all things Frozen (even if IMDB gives the writing credit to Hans Christian Andersen).

But I also harbour a long-time love of fairy tales.  I spent hours of my childhood poring over various collections and versions of tales collected by the Brothers Grimm or written by Andersen, or hunting down each colour in the Lang fairy book series. I would learn tales by heart just in case I, like Scheherazade, was placed in an impossible situation where I could save myself with my immense – if esoteric – knowledge.  Even better, maybe one day my hours of painstaking fairy-tale reading would save someone else’s life and I would be a heroine!

I have quite the imaginative streak.  I guess there is just a little of Anne Shirley lurking in me.

When I picked up Bella at Midnight, I wasn’t looking for anything in particular.  I just wanted a well-written book with a nice cover and a female protagonist.  What I got was a delicious surprise.

One of the things I love about fairy tales is that they are told and retold and told and retold.  The Grimm Brothers’ Aschenputtel is not Perrault’s Cendrillion.

Hermann VogelCharles Robinson 2

Disney’s animated Cinderella is nothing like Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (I am not talking about the banal movie but the clever Newbery Honor book).  And even though everyone instantly recognizes Cinderella, there is enough room for each author, storyteller, illustrator, to give us their best shot at making the story new.

Edmund Dulac
Edmund Dulac’s well-petticoated fairy godmother.
Cinderella
I had this when I was a kid and just loved it.
Charles Robinson
I love how she sits so awkwardly whilst two vague beauties laugh gaily behind her.

Cinderella has had many iterations.  In fact, it seems like most countries have a Cinderella story.  Either the human race is tied together by a shared primordial oneness that is more deeply rooted than our many cultural differences, or publishers realized at some point that this whole poor-worthy-girl-meets-prince-becomes-princess is a huge cash cow and have had a handful of writers and illustrators churn out “diverse” Cinderellas so that the public can buy multiple copies of what is essentially the same book.

Notice how some of the authors and illustrators overlap?

My point was – is – that fairy tales are but the bare bones of a story, and many an imaginative writer has put meat (of sometimes the dry stringy kind) on those bones.

Overworked metaphors aside, Diane Stanley has done just this, with Bella at Midnight.  The amazing, wonderful, crazy thing, is that she has put so much of her own imagination and creation into writing this tale that I was nearly halfway through the book before I realized that the story is actually a re-writing of Cinderella.  I say “re-writing” and not “retelling” because only the barest of whispers of Cinderella make it into the book and it would be ungenerous to say that Stanley is doing anything other than writing a story of her own.

Bella is, of course, the daughter of a knight and his beloved first wife.  When her mother dies, her father remarries and her stepmother and two stepsisters couldn’t be further from her in temperament or understanding.  She eventually goes to a ball where she sheds a glass slipper, retrieved by a prince.  He finds her and proposes; she accepts and the story ends.

But the cleverness is in the details.

First, Stanley tells the story from many different points of view.  The entire cast of characters (Bella, her aunt, her foster family, her stepsisters, her stepmother, and even the Prince) narrates, so that readers can understand how this dysfunctional story (and it is dysfunctional) came to be.

Second, Stanley has compassion for her characters.  No one person is evil or wicked (with the possible exception of Bella’s exceedingly controlling father).  Instead, the people are impatient, unkind, grief-stricken, silly, or vain.  They misunderstand each other.  They act gracelessly in awkward circumstances.  These very human foibles lead to Bella’s tragic mistreatment.

Third, Stanley does not resort to impossibilities.  She – somehow – makes every little thing that happens seem possible (given the circumstances), with only a very tiny magical aid (an emerald ring that shows viewers a glimpse of the present).  I am so thoroughly tired of serendipity as the main driver of plot resolution (I am looking at you, Harry Potter) that if I have to read another book where The One fixes the world just because it was Foreordained, I may throw something up.  I dodged that bullet with Bella at Midnight.  Even the inevitable marriage with the prince flows naturally from the story.

Fourth, Stanley’s un-impossible details seem realistically medieval.  I didn’t notice this the first time around, but noticed it upon re-read.  Castles, fortresses, princesses, and knights, yes.  But also illiteracy, poverty, and (some small amounts of) squalor.  Okay…there isn’t that much squalor and maybe it’s not so realistic.  But I did just finish The Silver Bowl, also by Stanley, which is ever-so-slightly grittier (read: more dirt, disease, and poultices), so I know she can do it.

Anyways.  The point is: read it.  Read it, read it, read it.  If nothing else, because it is so nice to read a book told in a realistic voice with a fine attention to the details that make a story really breathe.

Reading Ages:  Simply written, probably could be read by a middle-school-aged child.  Shorter than any of the Harry Potter books and with better English (the first Harry Potter wasn’t so bad, but by the end I was wondering where the editors had gone).  Has enough meat to hold a teen’s attention…at least, as much as anything can hold a teen’s attention.

Rating:  A-.  Because these days I am chary with my As and want to grant them only to books that are must-haves for people with personal libraries smaller than mine.

Favourite non-Bella narrator: I think it is Alice, Bella’s stepsister.  Or Will, Bella’s foster brother.

Interesting note: Open references to Christian faith.  Doesn’t bother me (fits with the times), but it may bother some.

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