A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Digital Audiobook narrated by Josephine Bailey
Published by Simon and Schuster on December 9, 2003
Series: Gemma Doyle #1
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Length: 403 pages or 11 hours, 13 minutes
Goodreads • Amazon • Barnes & Noble • Book Depository • IndieBound
In this debut gothic novel mysterious visions, dark family secrets and a long-lost diary thrust Gemma and her classmates back into the horrors that followed her from India. (Ages 12+)
It's 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma's reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she's been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence's most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?
Usually, I sit down and write a review within twelve hours of finishing a book. It just works better that way – the story is still fresh in my mind.
With A Great and Terrible Beauty, I’m writing this review two days later. I’m still thinking about it. There’s a lot to say on certain things, but for me, my thoughts on the book are incredibly simple. I liked it. I just liked it. I know there are some problematic areas, but enjoyed listening to this one and was invested in the characters and the story. Simple as that.
I’ll go a little deeper, though. Lets start with the problematic stuff, just to clear the air.
First of all, this is historical fiction set at a ladies prep school outside of London. In writing this book, Libra Bray made some choices. Ultimately, she chose to portray the school and Victorian England as they really would have been in the late 19th century: it’s a glorified wife-training academy. Ladies are taught to serve tea, speak French, and waltz. Other reviews call this sexist, I call it historical fiction. In writing, you have to choose whether to put modern perspectives into your time-period novel, or to set the scene in a more generally acceptable fashion. I appreciate Libba Bray’s choice here, because it feels right to the time period. For the record, it is also not generally accepted by all who are at the school, as the story tells. So is A Great and Terrible Beauty a sexist novel? I don’t think so.
A choice that was made and definitely could have been avoided (as I don’t feel it made much impact on the story) was the inclusion of the Romani people. Referred to as “gypsies” and displayed in all their wildness and colorful scarves, these people were a huge stereotype in the book, and I don’t think the story would have really changed if they were not included at all. The only characters here who really mattered were Carolina, Kartik, and Ithal. All of these character could been displaced and used differently, saving a harshly stereotyped scene. However – and this isn’t a defense so much as “setting the scene” – this book was published 15 years ago and I feel like our cultural understand of “gypsy” as a racial slur has improved since then. I don’t think that this was used hatefully on Libba Bray’s part. I think that likely herself and her editor were ignorant of the implications. This doesn’t excuse it, but it is my explanation.
Okay, dirty laundry aside, here’s the scoop:
A Great and Terrible Beauty is also magical realism, and really well written magical realism at that. It’s the story of a girl who awakens to a great power on her sixteenth birthday. This power leads her mother to be killed, and subsequently she is sent to a boarding school in England. Here, she struggles with her completely unexplained new abilities and digs for information. By good fortune, the school she is sent to is one of the few places she may be in a position to get information (although the school itself is none the wiser).
Throughout the book we see the four girls – Gemma, Ann, Felicity, and Pippa – attend classes by day and go with Gemma into the magical realms at night. They adore the realms; all their dreams come true there. Each girl wishes for a different thing, and in the garden of the realms, they find it. The story has the edge of favorites like A Little Princess and Dead Poets Society wrapped up in a tale of trying to find power and a place in the world where they are happy, rather than owned.
In an unpopular opinion, I liked all four of the girls (Ann the least) because even though Felicity was a bully and Pippa very self-absorbed, they were all well rounded characters. I find it interesting how many Goodreads reviews call out Felicity for using Gemma to get to the realms and call her a bad character. That’s the point, my loves! Not all people are good and sweet.
For myself, I actually really liked Pippa. Her story was heartbreaking for me, despite her personality flaws. I really wanted the poor girl to get a win.
I enjoyed the magical realism, and I enjoyed the friendships and the girls, but I though the romance was rubbish. It’s not that it was over the top cheesy and overtook the story (my usual complaints) – the love story was pointless. Kartik’s character showed up to scold Gemma or kiss her but had no worthwhile contribution to the storyline. His interactions with the girls seemed so random and pointless to me, I just sort of edited them out while I was listened and let the narrator carry on with the rest of the story.
I found A Great and Terrible Beauty to be an engrossing story and I loved the setting and characters and magic system, but it definitely has its flaws. I liked it! I did! I just don’t think I can defend it very well. 🙂 I’d still recommend it to people, with warnings about the first two points I addressed.