In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Gemma Doyle is sixteen in the year 1895. She has spent her life in India, but now that she has reached the age when most young women appear in society, she longs to go to London, and can’t understand why her mother refuses to allow it. Be careful what you wish for, Gemma: in a terrifying and tragic incident — one that seems to hint at otherworldly horrors — her mother is killed, and Gemma’s father decides to take the family to London.
England is not what Gemma hoped. She must attend Spence boarding school, her last best hope to learn to be what society expects from a perfect young lady: deportment, charm, French, drawing, dancing, and most of all, the suppression of her own desires in favor of those of her hypothetical future husband. The other girls at the school are in the same predicament, no matter their family background: beautiful, vain Pippa, being married off to the highest bidder; cruel Felicity, the queen bee, whose family history is a secret; clumsy outsider Ann, the scholarship student, who can look no higher than a position as a governess.
All this, with Gemma’s grief, would be enough to contend with. But strange forces are brewing. Gemma has visions, so real she can literally touch them. A mysterious young man named Kartik pays her a visit and warns her to shut herself off from the visions, or risk terrible danger. She begins to learn about an ancient Order of sorceresses, who could harness the power of the spirit world, the living and the dead, and determine their own destinies — something of which these girls can only dream. And — is it real? — Gemma thinks she sees her mother in her vision, the only person she truly longs for. As the girls begin to discover what magic and power really bring to lives that are so bounded on every side, the book takes shape and comes to its climax.
I picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty partly on someone’s recommendation — I no longer remember whose — and partly because it has such a wonderful title. (The other two books in the trilogy, The Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing, also have terrific titles, don’t you think?) Unfortunately, the title was the best thing about it.
One of the cardinal rules of a book in which the main character goes through difficult times is to make that character sympathetic. (You have to be very brave or very good or both to break that rule.) Gemma is whiny, immature, selfish, smug, stupidly rebellious, and ungenerous. When she has problems, we’re watching the (mostly self-induced) problems of someone we don’t even like. Another cardinal rule is that the character should have solid, loving friends to go through these problems with — think of Sarah Crewe, of the Railway Children, of Harry Potter. Instead, Gemma has frenemies, girls she constantly mocks in her mind and doesn’t like or trust (with reason, as it turns out.) She never makes a single solid connection, never makes a friend she doesn’t betray.
And as far as historical fiction goes, give it up. These are modern teenagers in ill-fitting corsets. They talk in the slightly-stilted language that means “old-fashioned,” but we have a girl who cuts her wrists so she can “feel something,” a sexually knowing ringleader who is wise to the ways of lesbians, and a whole group that’s willing to get drunk on whiskey. No doubt girls in 1895 did regret their lack of independence. But I very much doubt it looked like this.
There are also set pieces that require such a suspension of disbelief that I — who can believe in anything from Cthulhu to fairies — was laughing out loud. For instance, we had the part where a candle falls over and “instantly” the East Wing is in flames. Go on, I dare you: take a lit candle to your hardwood floor and push it over. 9 times out of 10, it will just go out. The tenth, if it stays alight, nothing at all will happen for at least 15 minutes (besides a scorch mark on your floor.) Plenty of time for even a shackled drunk blind person to put it out. And then there was the part where the girls decide a sacrifice is necessary in order for them to gain magical power, so they strip naked, like huntresses (?), and chase a deer. No doubt this was supposed to seem wild and terrible, like Athena or the Maenads, but in fact I could just picture three Victorian girls in the woods in the altogether, running after a deer, which would have completely disappeared in about five seconds. Human beings do not catch deer by running after them. The poor girls would have been rather disappointed. View-halloo!
You can probably tell that A Great and Terrible Beauty was not at all my cup of tea. Nevertheless, I did read the whole thing. I kept thinking about abandoning it, but somehow I didn’t ever put it down. I wanted to see what happened. It does have at least that going for it. And it’s been a long, long time since I read something nice and trashy. Great and terrible, indeed.