By this point of following the blog, you know I’m a sucker for a fairytale retelling. So you cannot be surprised that the premise of Jasmine Guillory’s latest release, By the Book—book two of Disney’s Meant to Be series, and based loosely on Beauty and the Beast—colored me intrigued. Add to the fact that I’ve heard a lot of lovely things about Jasmine Guillory’s writing and had yet to experience it outside of her essay in Black Love Matters: Real Talk on Romance, Being Seen, and Happily Ever Afters, and I found myself softly anticipating this new novel. And…it happily lived up to my expectations!
The book begins with our protagonist, Isabelle, a 25-year-old assistant editor for a well-established publishing company. When we meet her, she is grappling with the fact that she’s living her greatest dream, working the most bookish job she could conceive of in New York City. On one hand, she’s gained access to all the books she’d ever want to read, she’s made a great friend in a colleague—Priya—and she’s been able to draft her own novel. On the other hand, the senior editor she assists barely acknowledges what she brings to the table, she’s the only Black face in a very white space, she’s overworked and underappreciated by the authors she edits, and she’s received depressing feedback about her manuscript from the junior staffer she trusts most. On the very brink of burn out when the same junior staffer tells her that she is unlikely to receive a promotion, one that would help her move out of her parent’s house in New Jersey, she finds herself reluctantly excited about an upcoming trip to a work convention in California. Little does she know that this ordinary opportunity will turn into the most extraordinary experience of her lifetime. What happens next affects how she sees herself as a person with growing agency and authority over her personal needs as well as who she wants to be in her career and in relation to others.
As a book reviewer living in New York City, it is hard not to run into book professionals. From what I’ve learned from the publishing people I have interacted with, much of Isabelle’s consternation is true to life. Even as someone who has worked primarily within non-profit spaces, her struggles with promotion, task to time management, and professional anxiety mirrors much of what I and many of my friends have encountered. The fact that these dynamics make up most of her concerns is so real and makes her a very relatable main character. I enjoyed the enchanted location she finds herself in with this story’s Beast character, Beau. His grumpiness is endearing and also very relatable. There are numerous passages where Isabelle’s editor experience hit me in my own aspiring writer needs and it’s refreshing to see an author use her own understanding of the craft within her craft. Speaking of Guillory’s craft, one aspect of her writing that I often hear about is the wonders she brings to food. Because this has never been explained well to me, I half expected to have Food Wars!: Shokugeki no Soma-style reactions happen within the story or on my own. What I found instead was that Guillory has a very wonderful grasp of the human to food dynamic, by which I mean that such a good chunk of our lives is spent around buying and eating food that it behooves us to make sure that the food is good. And Guillory takes this relationship seriously. From a magnificent snack cabinet that Isabelle threatens to marry to joy brought to the romance based on their shared enjoyment of each other’s food choices, Guillory writes about food in the same way it has significance in our lives without adding weird or restrictive thoughts around it.
By the Book is a novel that covers so many bases in extremely satisfying ways. It is a modern, adult retelling of Beauty and the Beast without being over-reliant on the original plotlines or wandering into the abusive captor-prisoner department. The book even gives nods to the spellbinding Disney animated feature by having Isabelle anthropomorphize different items during her stay in an alluring Santa Barbara estate, making for some truly quirky, comical, and charming moments on her own and with characters who appreciate her humor. In short, I think the title says all that needs to be said: By the Book!