August 13, 2012

Bella at Midnight

BELLA AT MIDNIGHT by Diane Stanley (Harper Collins, 2006)
GENRE: Historical Romance - Fairy Tale
AGE: 10 and up

Firmly constructed on Cinderella's framework, Diane Stanley nevertheless manages to bring a fresh approach to the classic tale with her novel, Bella at Midnight. In this version, the heroine, Bella, though a knight's daughter, is fostered to a family of peasants, who lovingly raise her until her thirteenth year. When her father recalls her home, she is little prepared for her new life as a lady and the coldness of her father's home. However, Bella is kind and spirited. When she learns of a plot that threatens Prince Julian, her childhood friend, she embarks on a quest to save him aided only by her godmother, an enchanted ring and a pair of lovely glass slippers. Bella's success in the endeavor, however, has less to do with magical objects, and everything to do with the strength of her character.

Stanley's take on this familiar tale is distinctly historical in nature. Although the two warring countries are fictional, they bear great similarities to standard, medieval European societies, and though magic is not completely absent from the plot (the enchanted ring does reassure at critical moments), enchantments are, for the most part, underplayed. Stanley's narrative structure is one of alternating viewpoints, and though Bella receives more chapters than any other character, her point of view is most certainly not the only one (Prince Julian, her godmother, her foster mother and even her resentful, ill-treated stepmother and mute stepsister receive chapters of their own). For the most part, this convention works, lending the novel as scope that it otherwise would not have. Unfortunately, it also suffers from muted tensions and dulled focus because of it (nearly 80 pages are told from the stepmother's and stepsisters' points of view, lending them an excellent, interesting backstory but diluting the main thrust of the plot). That said, Stanley navigates her material deliberately, giving the reader a climax that elegantly ties up loose ends. The romance, though sweet, is underdeveloped and slightly tepid, though these very qualities make it appropriate for tweens not yet prepared for more intense relationships. Overall, it is an interesting alternative to more traditional Cinderellas, one that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend for it's discussion value alone.

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