A Great and Terrible Beauty

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.

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10 comments

  1. My feelings about it were similar. I wanted to love it, but in the end I found it entertaining but not spectacular and deciced not to read the sequels. I have high hopes for Going Bovine, though.

  2. I read all three of these books even though I wasn’t crazy about any of them – they were all right, but I wouldn’t recommend them to someone not sure about YA fiction. If you decide not to go on with the series, you won’t really be missing out much.

  3. Literary Omnivore, I know exactly what you mean. That bothered me a bit as well, but given that the characters also seemed a bit stock (except for Miss Moore–you are right about that!) it didn’t bother me as much as it might have. It was definitely entertaining.

    Nymeth, I wonder if I just didn’t expect a bit too much. I thought the story sounded promising, and having been so impressed by the other YA novels I’ve read recently, I had very high expectations. I’ve seen good things about Going Bovine, and maybe she’ll be stronger writing a modern story.

    Jenny, thanks for letting me know, because I wouldn’t want to miss the other books if they really got a lot better. I probably would recommend this for a younger teen, but not for an adult looking to venture into YA. Although, to give it some props: it’s better than some adult chick lit out there, so maybe I would recommend it for someone looking for that kind of read. I thought it was better than Twilight.

  4. Hi! 🙂 I just found your blog and am enjoying it. I read this series a few years back. I enjoyed GATB, found the sequel good but not as good and the third book a bit dull. I’d be interested to hear what you think of Going Bovine when you get to it.

  5. Sherry, I have only recently started exploring YA and have been pleased thus far. Enough people I trust were reading it and recommending it, and now I see why…And it is a great title! That’s actually what drew me to the book.

    Dominique, thanks very much for visiting, and for your thoughts on the other books in the trilogy. I thin that confirms my decision not to continue…too many other things to read.

  6. Literary Lollipop, it’s an easy, fun read. It would be great for the beach or any vacation…And I promise I will post about Solar. I am hoping to review that and The Cement Garden at the same time. 🙂

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