A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty has edged its way onto many a tabletop display in bookstores and I finally decided to break down and see why. To start, the cover is pretty darn alluring for its market of adolescent girls. Giant type over a beautiful girl in a corset... immediately, we're clued in that we're going to find a historical novel with some luscious undertones and most likely a romantic (though probably forbidden) storyline in the background, but with one girl's struggle to fit into a particular mold of society taking precedence. (Or at least if you study bookcovers like I do, you might think this.) And this is true... somewhat. I'll admit, though, I was surprised when the back of the book told me about the supernatural elements at play that were more than the usual ghosts and suspense found in Gothic novels.

This is the first in a trilogy of books set in the late 1800s about Gemma Doyle, a young British girl raised in India. On her sixteenth birthday, she feuds with her mother over her desire to visit London and runs off, only to then have her mother and another man die in a strange and mysterious way. Also mysterious is the fact that Gemma witnesses their deaths in an overpowering vision, but cannot understand what forces are at work, both in their deaths and in her vision. Gemma's father, whose hold on things already seems tenuous at best, suffers a nervous collapse and they return to England, where Gemma will attend the prestigious Spence boarding school for young ladies.

At Spence, she is immediately faced with the structured Victorian lifestyle that requires young ladies to be well-bred, compliant to the wishes of their elders, and highly accomplished. But let's not forget we're also dealing with adolescent girls and evidently, they remain the same no matter what the time period might be. At Spence, there is a strong clique of beautiful and wealthy girls that Gemma at once despises and yet feels pulled towards. At the same time, Gemma is still having flashes of visions and she discovers that she's been followed to England by a young Indian man (the brother of the man who died with her mother) who warns her to block out the visions at all costs. At this point, I find it hard to summarize without laughing a little bit... girl is unsure of her powers; girl is led to find a secret diary of another Spence girl who had similar powers; despite being warned by the Indian boy, she tries her powers out with her friends and they enter "the realms," a place where everything is shaped by their desires; girl is reunited with mother in these "realms" and mother warns her about taking magic into the real world; girl and friends do this anyway and subequently get in way over their heads with some darker force named Circe. Yeah. I suppose the less laughable summary would be: "As she struggles to keep her secret and still learn more about the powers she seems to possess, she and three friends play dangerously with forces beyond their understanding." but that's not quite as honest.

I admit right off the bat that I have a soft spot for young adult literature. There's something fascinating about work aimed towards a period of life where there's so much going on in terms of one's psychological development, education, and personality... not to mention the outward expression of it with inter-personal relationships. Young adults are finding out who they are and who they want to become. There's this interesting issue of trust at work whenever you're dealing with children's and young adult literature. What the author chooses to convey to the reader could shape this young person's life in ways they might not realize. It's fascinating and that's the logic I use whenever I think I should be reading a grown-up book. In addition, I really enjoy historical novels, so I was guiltily assuming that I'd really enjoy this series.

Not so much. On the teen education front, clearly Libba Bray's focus here was on the idea of personal insecurities and the question of coming to terms with one's self and having sincere friendships with others. There's also a healthy dose of forgiving each other and ourselves for the wrongs we've done or think we've done. Certain members (the leaders, really) of the pack of cruel girls at Spence become some of Gemma's closest friends (though honestly, it seems that this happens because of limited options) and they all have their own secrets, even as they bluff their way through appearing perfect. I feel that I'm not alone in thinking that these girls are not terribly likeable, but then, they're teenage girls. They do mean and hateful things to each other. When first entering the realms, Gemma is asked if she really trusts these girls and she immediately said yes -- which rather shocked me. Trust had not yet been earned and despite the professed bonds by the end of the book, I'm not sure it ever was merited. But, as I mentioned, we are dealing with teenage girls and at least Gemma herself is not some shining and perfect example of trust, honesty, and goodness. Everyone has flaws, though we might be a little too forgiving towards some of them. The historical features of the novel are more or less used for background elements and and when convenient in plotpoints -- one girl is being forced to marry a rich older man, gypsies (in a very stereotyped portrayal) populate the woods, there's the general backdrop of girls in a society that has specific expectations of them when they have different desires, etc. The time frame basically gave us some more Gothic elements, but clearly these girls were clearly created to seem more modern as a means of getting adolescent readers to relate to them. There are some steamy fantasies and underage drinking... definitely things that seem engineered to be more modern.

In the end, I also wasn't terribly swept away with the idea of "the realms" and the magical things taking place. Intrigued, perhaps, but never really convinced that they would be fantastic. In addition, I found most everything to be quite predictable, so I wasn't surprised by any betrayal, death, or revelations of character. And here's an incredibly petty criticism, but I was surprised when I discovered that Libba Bray herself is a redhead, as Gemma is not a convincing one. She lacks the spark of personality and there was a complete lack of a reaction from surrounding characters to this fact (and surely at the time, there would be something snide about Ireland or Scotland mentioned to Gemma once she reached Spence, and in India it would have been even rarer and comment-inducing). A bigger deal was the fact that she has her mother's green eyes. Alas.

What I did appreciate, I suppose, were the great pains taken to suggest that we're all flawed and no one is perfect. There was also a good emphasis on how there were very limited options for girls in Victorian times (even if everything didn't quite feel accurate enough). And perhaps another benefit might be that the adolescent girls reading this might end up reading real Gothic literature as a result, and fingers crossed that they won't stop reading when they realize they won't be getting the same kind of steamy scenes and blunt, modern language in the older stuff.

So... will I be reading the rest of the trilogy? Normally, you'd assume that a reviewer with these opinions would say no, but then you have to remember that I have trouble letting go of things. And when it's so easy to read young adult novels quickly, I find it hard to justify the abandonment of them. In the end, I'll let my pocketbook make the call. If I end up finding them at a used bookstore or on super sale, then I'll continue, but I will not be paying market price, even for a fellow redhead.

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