Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Posted November 1, 2017 by Amber in Reviews / 2 Comments

Monstrous Beauty

Monstrous Beauty

by Elizabeth Fama

Publisher: Farrar Straus and Giroux on September 4, 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mermaids, Romance
Target Age Group: Young Adult

Rating: ★★★★

Check out this book on Goodreads

Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.

Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.


This book had me hooked from the beginning.

When I went into Monstrous Beauty, my opinions on it were 100% “Ugh. A mermaid book?  I probably won’t like this one, either.  Well – here goes!”  …  I WAS SO SO WRONG.  This book is beautifully written, the characters are deep and interesting, and the story is just magical enough to be fantasy, but mostly it reads like a contemporary ghost story.  I loved it.  Monstrous Beauty exceeded my expectations in every way and I was so, so pleased.

Hester is my literary dopplegänger.

There are plenty of characters out there that I will read, and relate to in some way.  Characters who are interesting, likable, or have similar quirks or interests.  Loves, I have never related to a character as much as I related to Hester.  Within the first chapter of listening, I knew that she:

  • Had a little brother she mostly gets along with.
  • Is inexplicably drawn to the ocean.
  • Is a HUGE history buff.
  • Is the QUEEN of socially awkward.
  • Hates parties because they’re dumb.
  • Doesn’t seem to really have any close female friends.

These probably aren’t that remarkable, but all together?  Hester and I would be friends, at the very least, because I am all these things, too.

She’s not the only likable character, though!  Everyone in this story is really interesting.  I liked Pastor McKean a lot as well, with his kindly demeanor.  I liked Hester’s brother, Sam.  And even Syrenka and Ezra and Adeline were great to read.  Peter and Eleanor.  All of them.  I can’t say I liked Eleanor as a PERSON, but as a CHARACTER?  She’s really good, really well-written.

The history fanatic in me was dying.

Dying in a good way!  I am not an expert on Plymouth, Massachusetts.  In fact, despite my proximity, I’ve never been there.  But you can tell when the author has gone the extra mile to research her world.  Whenever there’s the slightest bit of historical fiction in a book, I am ready to destroy it.  I am ready to find the lazy inaccuracies.  Monstrous Beauty is really careful, really intricate, and it adds so much to the story.

I really enjoyed the scenes where Hester was at her job at Plymouth Plantation.  I loved her switching between her thoughts and character, making pottage and sweeping her cottage.  Also… I just plain loved the fact she had a job?  And actually went to work.  And had to make excuses when she wasn’t there, like REAL LIFE.

A quick shout out to the narrator, here?  Katherine Kellgren uses a lot of different dialects in her reading, but I think that the dialect she uses for Hester at Plymouth Plantation is amazing?  I can imagine Hester in the break room practicing her accent so that she’s more historically accurate.  Not just because the job requires it, but because it’s important to her.


This is nothing to do with the research or the history, but I need to chastise Hester.  AS A HISTORIAN SHE SHOULD KNOW BETTER.  There’s a point where she takes a fragile, historical book and just… shoves it in her backpack?  It’s a little journal and it’s over three-hundred years old.  OMG WHAT ARE YOU THINKING.  And even if she’s being dumb and impulsive and I want to forgive her, SHE DOES IT AGAIN LATER.  With another three-hundred-year-old antique.


The mermaid-ness of this story is important, but not overwhelming.

I bring this up because if you’re considering this book for all its undersea treasure and aquatic goodness, that’s few and far between.  The fact that there are merpeople is really important to this story, but at it’s core?  Monstrous Beauty is a ghost story.


There’s a lot of twists and interestingness with the ghosts, so I won’t go into detail (I REALLY WANT TO).  I will say there was one bit near the end where I legit thought the author had just dismissed a character and was making up justifications for this in my head (I came up with reasonable ones I found acceptable!) AND THEN NO SHE DIDN’T AND STUFF HAPPENED.  It was really good.  I was really pleased.

I do like a good ghost story.


I loved Monstrous Beauty, and I’m glad it’s a standalone because it’s a well-written concise story all together.  I would definitely read another YA fantasy book by this author, especially if she continues to use this level of research and give us complicated characters.

Ratings Breakdown

Setting: ★★★★ 1/2
Plot: ★★★★ 1/2
Characters: ★★★★★
Writing: ★★★★★
Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Narrator: ★★★ 1/2
Personal Enjoyment: ★★★★★


Have you read this book?

Which do you like better – mermaid stories or ghost stories?

Who is your literary doppelgänger?

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2 responses to “Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

  1. I really like reading mermaid stories, and the reason why I bought this was because it had mermaids in it? So maybe I am a bit disappointed, but then I read the rest of your review and I’ve been re-convinced that this is the book for me. Because I like a good ghost story! And Hester sounds like a great character, I guess except for shoving 300-year-old things into her backpack. Great review Amber!

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    • Amber

      I was expecting much more mermaid than I got – which I was actually okay with. I LOVE a proper ghost story, but I can TOTALLY see that if you were going into it with your heart set on mermaids it would be super duper disappointing.

      It’s true: #1 rule of being my friend is do NOT treat fragile pieces of history with blatant disrespect, lol.