Author: Edith Pattou
Genre: Fantasy YA, Fairy Tales
Published: September 1, 2003
Summary: Rose has always felt out of place in her family, a wanderer in a bunch of homebodies. So when an enormous white bear mysteriously shows up and asks her to come away with him—in exchange for health and prosperity for her ailing family—she readily agrees. The bear takes Rose to a distant castle, where each night she is confronted with a mystery. In solving that mystery, she loses her heart, discovers her purpose, and realizes her travels have only just begun.
As familiar and moving as “Beauty and the Beast” and yet as fresh and original as only the best fantasy can be, East is a novel retelling of the classic tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a sweeping romantic epic in the tradition of Robin McKinley and Gail Carson Levine.
EAST has been on my TBR pile for a long time, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, I’m a little mad at myself for taking so long to pick it up. It was a lovely, engaging, magical, poetic retelling of the “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” story, and even though I was not familiar with this tale before, I’m not sure that I could imagine a version that I would enjoy more. It was bee-you-tee-ful.
This book alternates between several narrators–Rose, her father, her brother, Neddy, the bear, and the Troll Queen–and all of them moved me in one way or another (even the Troll Queen, with her crazy obsession, was kind of sad and pathetic in a heartbreaking way). Rose herself is a breath of fresh air as a main character. I loved the way the author described her restlessness, curiosity, and compassion. Her relationships in particular illustrate this. I’ll talk about a few of them here, but truly I can’t recommend enough that you go out and grab a copy of EAST wherever you can get it and fall into this absorbing, whimsical story.
Rose is the spunky, fidgety, inquisitive youngest daughter in her family, led by her beloved map-maker father and her tremendously superstitious mother. It is clear from the earliest that Rose holds a special place in her father’s heart, and that her relationship with her mother is a little complicated. One of the great achievements of this book, though, is that even though her father tells us that Rose is his most special child, it’s really just something nice to hear. We would know that their relationship is special just from observing them together. So fabulous. Same goes for her mother, who is hard to swallow sometimes, what with the way her obsessions (oops! I mean superstitions) regulate the whole family’s life, from little household oddities about sweeping and sneezing, to the cardinal direction the mother is facing when she gives birth to her children (hence the title of the book, as well as the basis of her slightly forced relationship with Rose). But the real heart and soul of Rose’s family relationships is her connection with her brother, Neddy. They’re sweet and supportive and loyal, and their mutual affection is heart-warming. Neddy is one of the only people in Rose’s family who accepts her natural tendency to wander and explore and isn’t afraid of it in the same way his mother is. I loved him and his quiet nerdiness.
The real heart of EAST, though, is the bear. Oh, how I loved that bear! I loved how sweet and careful he was with Rose. How hopeful he was for the two of them. This was one of my favorite things about this story, seeing their relationship develop into something emotional, important, and loving. Having this relationship bloom when one half was a human girl and the other an animal is undoubtedly no easy task, but it is pulled off beautifully. I felt real emotions from their interactions with each other in the castle. The bear seemed so human it was heartbreaking, and Rose’s growing affection for the bear and his human-like qualities was real and lovely. I loved that they spent so much time in each other’s quiet company, just being near each other. One scene in particular made me gasp a little, it was so fraught and perfect:
The moment I was done, and had sewed on the last pearly ribbon and button, I ran to my room so fast I was out of breath when I got there. And in my haste I forgot to shut the door behind me.
When I stood before the mirror in this dress, I did not laugh. For just a moment I saw myself as beautiful. And I smiled at my reflection. Dreamily I thought how I might put my hair up and wind a length of moon-ribbon through it.
Then I heard a noise. A gusty, sighing sound like I heard once before, when I first came to the castle. I spun around and saw the white bear standing in the doorway.
I froze. I was afraid for the first time in a long while. We stared at each other. For what felt like an eternity, all I was aware of were those black eyes, fierce and sad, fixed on mine. Finally the white bear lowered his head. He kept it low for several moments. Then he raised it again, turned, and walked away and out of sight.
My cheeks were flushed and my heart beat fast. I crossed to the door and shut it. I noticed that my hands were shaking.
*Sigh* Seriously. Reading this passage in context is even lovelier.
I really can’t say enough about how much I loved EAST. It was such a quiet and powerful story. I particularly loved that, even though this is a fantasy, it very clearly is set in a world I know, in Norway and places named Danemark, Gronland, and Fransk, exactly the places you think they are. I loved that this made the magic seem so much closer to me, more possible somehow in the real world. This one is worth reading again and again.