SUNSHINE by Robin McKinley
Speak, 2010, 416 pages, 978-0142411100, Mass Market Paperback, $8.99
For me, there’s nothing quite like reading a fairy tale. Something about them always grabs my attention. I think this is true for a lot of people. Why would so much of our popular entertainment, from television to books, center on them otherwise? Fairy tales are the most fundamental of stories, and writing an adaptation of one is a tempting proposal. The basic outline of the story is already there; all you need are characters and setting details.
In reality, however, it isn’t that simple. It’s the spirit of the story that has to be translated from version to version, and I think that this deeper essence is ultimately why so many people connect with fairy tales. Whether or not you manage to represent that spiritual trueness is what separates merely adequate retellings from the best. Anyone can hit the marks and have Beauty fall in love with the Beast, but can everyone really cut to the heart of that story? Can they find a reason why that love works even though everything in the plot indicates that it shouldn’t? The best retellings, the ones that stay with you and become entwined with your own romantic dreams, are the ones that find this center.
Robin McKinley is a master of the reimagined fairy tale. Many of her books are, at their core, an examination of Beauty and the Beast, and it is a credit to her skill that they come in varied and interesting iterations while still remaining true to the spirit of that story.
Take, for example, this book, Sunshine. You might read the back cover and, upon discovering that it’s a story about a human girl and a vampire, be excused for rolling your eyes. I know even I, a long time McKinley fan, definitely did. But when you actually sit down to read it, it quickly becomes clear that this is not another supernatural love story where the heroine has a self-destructive bent that makes her eager to bed the walking representation of her death.
The titular Sunshine is not a simpering girl fascinated by the beauty of a tortured not-quite-monster. She’s a serious baker with a penchant for desserts with lurid names, like “The Death of Murat,” who’s more interested in enjoying living on her own than in marrying her long-term motorcycle riding boyfriend, Mel. While she doesn’t have all the trappings of a Beauty, like sisters, selflessness, or well, beauty itself, that’s unquestionably her part in the story. What McKinley keeps is the loneliness that underlies Beauty, and Sunshine’s, actions. Sunshine, like Beauty, is different from her happy, normal family. She has magical abilities that her mother has tried to squash with an aggressively ordinary life and a lack of knowledge about her birth father’s shadowy, powerful family. There’s always been something missing for Sunshine, something that prevents her from quite clicking into her life. It’s this loneliness that leads to her meeting Constantine, the vampire Beast.
One of the best things that McKinley does in Sunshine is make the vampires scary. They are the “darkest of Others,” and their characterization fits this. Even Constantine, Sunshine’s eventual ally and friend, is terrifying and hideous. He’s constantly described as being physically disconcerting to Sunshine. As the Beast, part of his character is his separateness, his unappealing appearance that Beauty has to overlook in order to find his true self. Unlike the traditional Beast, though, Constantine is not really uncomfortable with his alien nature. He embraces his monstrosity more than the Beast ever did; if he and Sunshine had not met under extraordinary circumstances, he undoubtedly would have killed her. Not because he is an indiscriminate murderer, but, as McKinley makes clear, because that would be the natural order of their meeting. As a vampire, he is a hunter and, as a human, she his prey.
Like Sunshine, loneliness is what motivates Constantine. Unlike other vampires, who live in gangs, he lives alone. His differentness from others of his kind makes him a target. What he needs is an ally. Just as the Beast cannot break his curse unaided, Constantine cannot hope to keep himself safe from Bo, a rival vampire, without Sunshine’s help. He needs Sunshine to provide him support in taking down Bo. He needs a bond with her to keep them both alive and strong enough to defeat their enemies. For her part, Sunshine needs Constantine to help her embrace all of the aspects of herself that she has carefully sealed away and to help her find a way to channel her dissatisfaction with life into something that proves her worth. Constantine represents the division between herself as she has always wanted to be, ordinary, and how she actually is, a vampire slaying anomaly.
This cross section of needs and the way that the other characters help fill it is a main component of why Beauty and the Beast is such a story mainstay. Beauty needs Beast to help her find a place where she belongs, and the Beast needs Beauty to help him face his ostracism. Each part of the equation has something that balances the other side. Despite appearances, Sunshine is not a love story about a girl and a vampire so much as it is an examination of the loneliness inherent to this type of story and the needs that pull two outsiders together. If you like fairy tales with a little melancholy, Sunshine isn’t a book you can afford to miss.