I picked up Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty as part of my ongoing effort to read more young adult titles. Most of the YA titles I’ve encountered thus far could step into the ring with any “adult” fiction titles and at least give them a run for their money, if not win hands-down. Bray’s novel is the first I think might not be quite a contender in the same fashion as the others (The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, Hate List), but it was still entertaining and fun to read.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is set at the end of Nineteenth century. The story begins in Bombay, India, where Gemma Doyle is celebrating her sixteenth birthday. She wants desperately for her mother to send her back to London. As they move through the streets to pay a social call to a family friend, they argue, but the argument stops short when Gemma’s mother is spooked by something she sees in the street. She decides to visit the friend alone, sending Gemma home to rest. She gives Gemma a necklace she always wears, one with a mysterious symbol, and tells her she will see her at home, to which Gemma replies, “I don’t care if you come home at all.”
Such words are like the gun that must go off by the third act, but Bray does not leave the reader hanging. Gemma’s mother dies (I won’t tell you exactly how), and Gemma and her father return to England. Her father is nursing an addiction to laudanum, and her grandmother and brother believe firmly that Gemma must be brought to hand and taught to be a marriageable young lady, so she is sent to Spence, a finishing school for girls of the upper-classes (or for lower classes, training to be teachers and nannies).
Gemma is spooked by unusual visions that have been occurring since the death of her mother. She also finds that she has been followed to England (and to Spence) by a mysterious young Indian man named Kartik, who appeared to her just before her mother died. Under these unusual circumstances, she must also do what she can to fit into the school’s rigid social order. Paired with a hapless roommate on a scholarship, Gemma finds herself up against a gaggle of snobbish girls led by the school’s two great beauties, Felicity Worthington and Pippa Cross. Convention dictates, of course, that Gemma, the hapless roommate, Felicity and Pippa somehow be brought together. Gemma’s visions lead her to the diary of a past Spence student who talks about a mysterious group called the Order, which had gained access to otherworldly realms. Through a series of small misadventures, the girls join forces to enter the other realms, and find themselves in over their heads.
That’s it in a nutshell, but of course there’s much more to it than that. There’s a bit of a mystery at the heart of this book, so I wouldn’t want to give too much away. I found it entertaining enough, although fairly conventional. It was better than your average chick lit, and the atmosphere especially lends itself well to the story. The girls are mostly stock characters, which feels a bit limiting, and nothing is really shocking, even with the bit of a twist at the end. Nothing is resolved, because this is the first book of the trilogy. Right now I am on the fence about whether to continue the series. If I pick up anything else by Bray soon, it will probably be Going Bovine.