Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
I’m sure most people have seen the movie and not read the book, turning this book into every one’s favourite book that they’ve never read. The Princess Bride is a story about William Goldman editing out all the boring bits of a beloved childhood book that his father had read to him for a month while he was sick with pneumonia.
If your tween has seen the movie, there’s a lot of the same stuff in the book. It follows the path of Westley and Buttercup, from when they were young on Buttercup’s parents’ farm where Buttercup is slowly learning that she is in love with Westley. He leaves to make something of himself, and is presumed dead when his ship is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts. She is then chosen to marry Prince Humperdinck and becomes embroiled in a plot to throw two rival kingdoms (Guilder and Florin) into a war. It delivers on everything that Goldman promises: true love, high adventures, pirates, princesses, giants, miracles, fencing, torture in vast quantities.
The main difference between the movie and the book is that the book goes into greater depths on each character. You understand Inigo’s quest to find his father’s killer. You get the whole background on Fezzik and his childhood. There’s a lot more time spent on the Machine and what happens. There is also Goldman interjecting throughout the book, because it’s not just the story that goes on, but there’s another story underneath which is Goldman’s reaction to finally “reading” The Princess Bride.
It’s great reading if you’re a grown up. He makes fun of academics, editing, writing, and his life. He talks about his own experiences with writing and what he loves about the book. It’s funny, touching, personal, and the antithesis of the action that happens in the book. In the editing sections he talks about what he cut out and why, and the various possible outcries from academic circles for the things he has cut out. He talks about his relationship with his father reading the book to him, and his visceral reactions as a kid. He discusses his marriage, and his kids who are as much a fiction as the William Goldman character who is editing the book. It’s a story within a story about a story, which is something an older tween might be into reading but a younger tween might not.
The adventure part of the book is still a joy to read, as you get into Inigo’s head during the swordfighting match on top of the Cliffs of Insanity. The dialogue is wonderful, and funny, and all the great lines from the movie are found inside the book—if you’ve seen the movie you’ll get a personal kick out of those moments.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
I first tried reading this to the girls out loud, because that’s kind of part of the story and what dad doesn’t secretly wish to be Peter Falk in that movie? But I stopped pretty quickly. There’s a lot of body policing in the book. If they read the introduction, where Goldman talks about picking up the book, he talks about how fat his son is and how it’s the author’s fault that his son is fat. The first chapter, which is about Buttercup, talks about the most beautiful woman in the world when Buttercup was born being a scullery maid named Annette who ends up not being beautiful because she ends up eating all the chocolates that the Duchess de Guisse leaves out for her. Another woman stops being beautiful because she starts to worry about not being young forever and starts to fret. You can see where this is going—the book plays very much into the idea that there is one standard set of beautiful and it’s tall, thin, and young.
Buttercup ends up becoming the most beautiful woman in the world because she feels that she needs to be better for Westley, and achieves that status after she comes out of mourning for him because she’s now thinner. It’s kind of gross.
All the families are off in their own way. Domingo is demanding and somewhat abusive of his son during the year that he spends making the six fingered sword. Fezzik’s parents turn him into a fighter at the age of nine years old and threaten him with his ultimate fear of abandonment when he doesn’t want to do it. Buttercup’s parents find comfort through bickering, and when her father dies her mother goes soon after because of the lack of adversity.
Goldman’s own “family” is also incredibly dysfunctional. There are instances where he talks about his wife Helen and that, while she’s a wonderful person, there is no love in their marriage. He also discusses his personal shame about his son.
The Machine in the movie has nothing on the Machine in the book. The suction cups go everywhere, including his eyelids which made my skin crawl. There is torture in the book, but for the most part you only get to read the after effects of the regular torture, and Westley’s pride at dissociating enough that all the pain and agony they’re inflicting on his body doesn’t touch his mind. When the Machine is turned on, the description of what it does—reaching into every single part of Westley’s essence and shredding it—is terrifying.
It’s hard because there’s so much I love about this book, but a lot of what I love isn’t necessarily aimed at tweens. If you’re comfortable with the body stuff you might want to give it to your older tween to read, particularly if they’ve seen the movie. If they’re younger, you might want to read it to them out loud, skipping the Goldman editor parts in that fine parental (and particularly fitting for this book) fashion. They’ll get to hear all the exciting things without the introspection and personal relationship to the story that they might not find interesting—and which contain some of the problematic aspects.
The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman
30th Anniversary Edition, reprinted in 2007 by Harcourt Books
(The book was originally published in 1973)
Read out loud