Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

I first noticed this book because the title caught my eye at the bookstore, and the jacket design reminds me of Gail Carson Levine.

The book is a bit reminiscent of Gail Carson Levine, but for an older audience. It's the perfect book to give girls who loved Ella Enchanted so that they can stretch their reading skills, though there is a bit of violence that some parents might be wary of.

Let me get this out of the way: I adored this book. I'm going to be buying it as soon as I have money again. I finished reading it and immediately went back and reread my favorite parts.

Princess Benevolence is one of the best fairy tale princesses of YA literature. She makes a point of saving herself as often as she can, though sometimes her version of saving herself only lands her in more trouble than before. She's lived an indulgent life, but never before realized just how cushy her life has been.

The best thing about Ben though, is that she starts out behaving in rather unlikeable ways. Because she is the narrator, you're able to see what she thinks of her previous behavior, so instead of deciding to dislike her based on her actions and behavior, you continue reading to see how and why she transforms. And because you see the reasons behind her behavior, you know that she is just trying to remain herself as her aunt tries to reshape her into a perfect princess, so you're willing to cut her slack.

But when she has an opportunity to hear the unvarnished truth about her behavior from an outside witness, Ben wakes up and starts to see what her actions are costing both herself and her country.

I'll not spoil any more of the story here, but Ben takes her future into her own hands admirably. There's a lesson here, though it's not shoved in your face. It's a book where a young girl finds that obstinately "being herself" at all costs isn't what being an adult is about, but facing responsibility with maturity and grace. She finds that when she opens her mind to new ideas, that her aunt's instructions actually aren't as horrible as she assumed and serve a good purpose.

The other point to note, is that Ben consistently remarks on her own weight. Actually, her obesity is a very important point to the story, because her aunt's anger at her over eating are what leads to Ben's imprisonment in the tower, where she encounters her magic for the first time. Ben's relationship with others is mirrored in her relationship with food, and in the end, though her trials cause her to lose weight, she is quick to point out that she will never be described as slim, and that no man she'd ever want to meet would be able to put his hands around her waist. She just simply gets more feminine curves.

On the one hand, part of me feels like the story skirts just this side of condemning larger girls. There's something about the fact that Ben doesn't even accept herself until after she loses weight. But on the other hand, the book does a good job describing her relationship with food, and has some rather astute observations about emotional eating. Somehow, it manages to describe her overeating without falling into all the typical disparaging cliches. I identified with her, and her struggle. And I admire Murdock's choice to keep Ben overweight even after her transformation. Though there's a short section about Ben convincing people not to be superficial that seems a little preachy, it's message is true.

This book is downright fantastic. There are some throw away references to classic fairy tales (a pea under a mattress, trading magic beans for a cow, a enchanted sleeping princess who must be woken with a kiss) they aren't the focus of the story. This isn't really a retelling of a story, it just is a more realistic take on that world, which I appreciated.