I’ll be honest, the moment I heard Sandhya Menon was writing a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast I bopped right on over to the website of my local bookstore to preorder it. I’d blame that on social distancing, but actually I’m just an introvert. I have them bookmarked on my browser front-and-center for exactly this type of emergency!
Menon is a known author to me after reading “From Twinkle, with Love” (thanks Owlcrate!), and “When Dimple Met Rishi” is high on my TBR list. And now, a Beauty and the Beast retelling with an Indian Princess and a cursed English Lord as teenagers attending an elite prep school? I cannot express how here am I for this book!
Jaya Rao is a charming young girl who is trying to accept that her whole life is planned out for her and that it is her duty to follow that path, being a royal public figure in her home in India. And she’s unfortunately becoming very good at convincing herself that she is doing the right thing in discouraging her sister to study mechanics and robotics, intending to one day marry the boy her family chose for her, and in trying to obtain and then break the heart of her nemesis, the Emerson heir.
Grey Emerson is our brooding, dramatic, loner beast, and yeah- I loved him. He even has a tower that he paces around in. I mean, it’s an unused locked tower in their school that he broke into, but same difference. Grey believes he will die at the age of 18 due to a curse placed on his family by Jaya’s great-grandmother, which leads to an interesting conversation that touches on colonialism and how it continues to have an effect on people generation’s later (I mean, it’s not in-depth, but I think it’s amazing that the history wasn’t just swept under the rug, as it so often is).
When Jaya shows up at Grey’s school his senior year, he is nothing if not alarmed. He knows she’s the heir of the family that cursed his. Is she a harbinger to his imminent demise? And why does she want to hang out with him? Even more alarming, why does he seem to not be able to stay away from her? The more they interact, the more they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
There must be something there that wasn’t there before, I guess.
Namely, that death curse. A death curse that Jaya doesn’t even believe in, which is embodied in Jaya’s rose pendant that contains 18 rubies. Her father gave it to her and she treasures it, but while Grey loathes it he can’t tear his gaze away because every time he’s around Jaya another stone seems to fall from its petals, seemingly counting down to his demise.
Jaya, for her part, is simply here for the sole purpose of getting revenge on the Emerson family… by getting close to the heir, making him fall in love with her, and breaking his heart. There’s a huge flaw in this plan- namely, that it’s a bad one. But this is where Menon’s writing really comes in as a win for me.
The harder Jaya tries to go down this path that the reader knows is not right for her, the more her values and her perfectly organized life start to go a little askew. I often have a hard time with character arcs that require the character to realize they are in the wrong well after the reader has. I am that reader who thinks “what are you doing? Why am I even here reading about you” while the character blunders their way through yet another mistake. I mean, learning experience.
I have to deal with learning from my own mistakes all the time. I barely have enough patience to forgive myself, let alone a dense fictional character. But Menon is brilliant. She has a way of weaving a story and growing her characters in a way that makes me sit forward and say, “uh-huh. Uh-huh. Go on,” while nodding attentively.
Menon manages to make me not only root for Jaya, but delight in each learning experience she goes through as she slowly untangles the knots of her preconceptions. For a light-hearted book, it was very insightful and let characters have controversial arcs while still offering room for growth. While I did have some eye-roll moments at Jaya’s internal monologue and insistence on stifling the desires of her sister as well as her own, I couldn’t help but want to cheer her on. She is just… young, and sheltered, and trying her best. Jaya takes every opportunity to learn and really think about the people and situations she encounters, weighing what she hears and sees against what she was always told.
I think there is a moment in every person’s life where they begin to weigh what they were taught against their own experiences, and it’s part of growing up. Menon writes this in a very charming and thoughtful way, and not just with Jaya. Jaya and Grey are surrounded by some really great characters, and they aren’t all immediately just friends. They grow to learn each other and trust each other, despite their preconceived notions, and in the end stick by each other.
That was my favorite moment- the moment when Jaya’s friends and sort-of-not-really-a-friend-but-actually-a-real-good-friend all come together to support Jaya when she really needs them. They are there for her, and I really really really hope that they each get their own fairy-tale retelling in this series!
Jaya and Grey’s relationship slowly blooms (har) into a shy, genuine romance, and I found it to be so touching to watch them learn to be both strong and vulnerable around each other. Even when they argue they come back to the table again when they are ready, highlighting the importance of trust and communication in any relationship at any age. Grey’s relationship with his father and how his father cuts off communication with him is a stark comparison to the life Grey really wants to lead.
I really can’t end this review without mentioning the cover of the book.
This cover is the embodiment of my little heart’s every desire. The color, the flirtiness, the roses, the brooding white boy and vivacious tan girl. This is a book I would have enjoyed at any age, because I’ll be honest, I love to see girls who look like me gracing the covers of books, especially as a depiction of Belle’s renowned beauty (don’t we all?). Granted, Jaya is Indian and my mother is Costa Rican, but given that Grey looks at her and thinks: “She looked calm, peaceful, like a tranquil lake in Costa Rica,” I call that a win. Especially because, like Jaya, no lake is truly calm and peaceful in Costa Rica (we have crocodiles).
Come on. I had no chance.
This book was written for me, and anyone else who still believes in curses and the power of true love.
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