A Great and Terrible Beauty
By: Libba Bray
Sixteen-year-old Gemma has had an unconventional upbringing in India, until the day she foresees her mother's death in a black, swirling vision that turns out to be true. Sent back to England, she is enrolled at Spence, a girls' academy with a mysterious burned-out East Wing. There Gemma is snubbed by powerful Felicity, beautiful Pippa, and even her own dumpy roommate Ann, until she blackmails herself and Ann into the treacherous clique.
I've known that I would really enjoy this book for a while. Then I jumped into Libba Bray through The Diviners, which as you'll see if you check out my review, I really enjoyed. Then I tried to start the audiobook of this one and just couldn't get into it. But this week I decided to try actually reading it. I see now that it is actually a bit hard to get into, but after a hundred pages or so, I was hooked.
This is definitely a character-driven book. The girls are broken and flawed (and we're not talking for what passes for flawed in some books. I'm talking, messed up past the point of typical "likability.") But I think that was a plus for them and for the overall story.
Gemma: She's sarcastic and easily angered, but despite that she is still allowed to be compassionate and strong and brave and clever. It's brilliant. The thing is she has no idea what is happening to her and no one to explain it to her. She does the best she can. I loved seeing her with Pippa, Ann, and Felicity. I think that while their friendship often came off as petty, that's because they're still naïve and a bit immature. But that's why the relationship is so believable. They are girls who almost just met in a boarding school that none of them really want to be in. But there were moments when I thought, I've felt that exact same way around my friends. That's where it hit home for me in its reality.
Gemma is a great narrator because she is an observer. She's sees things in the other girls that they believe they have hidden well. Then she doesn't exploit it, she has compassion for them (even when she's angry at them).
Pippa: While almost a stereotype, the way Pippa is treated in the book she avoids that fate. She's given a believable backstory for the time, she's given a personality that goes beyond the typical "beautiful minion" type of character. She's the hopeless romantic of the group because she is the one most likely to be tethered into a marriage she doesn't want, and soon. I liked all the little details about her, like that she babbled because she was a afraid of not being heard.
Felicity: Now she was an intriguing character. Felicity with a want for might beyond any she would have as a good Victorian daughter. You can tell early on that she's manipulative and too charming for her own good. She knows how to harness words to her own benefit and that's what made her longing so believable. I loved her because she's complex and interesting, but I'm not quite sure yet where her story will end up.
Ann: poor Ann. She's shy and unwanted by everyone she meets. That kind of character is usually given an angel's personality that everyone else just happens to miss. But the thing that made Ann stand out to me was how she really did take affection, even feigned affection, wherever she could find it. She knew the girls were tricking her at the beginning but she followed anyway, she let herself believe it anyway. I think she could have a lot of character development coming in the next two books.
Hester Moore: She is awesome. A great teacher. I loved every scene that she was in because she was the one person actually caring for Gemma. I have a feeling she'll be a part of the coming books.
I will admit that the plot of this book was a bit slow-moving. But for me it kind of had the same vibe as The Infernal Devices. The language was such that I found myself not caring all too much about the speed of the book. Toward the end, though, things started happening very quickly and I really liked that.
I love the emphasis on Gemma realizing that all the girls' dreams are valid. Pippa just wants a prince charming, and that's valid. Ann wants to be pretty and that's fine. It's not about telling other people what they want, because most of the time they won't want the same things you do.
I also love that while this may be a fantasy story, it's still mostly a self-discovery story for Gemma and the other girls. They're being offered more power to choose and feel than they've ever been given before, and to see their reactions is fascinating.
Just as in The Diviners, Libba Bray brought in a writing style so beautiful. As I said earlier the pacing of this book would have annoyed me more had it not been for the engrossing language. Just like with the best of authors, even common sentences or dialogue she was able to get deeper points across about just what she wanted this book to mean.
"No, she dies for love," Pippa says, sounding sure of herself for the first time. "She can't live without him. It's terribly romantic."
Miss Moore gives a wry smile. "Or romantically terrible."
"May I suggest you all read? And often. Believe me, it's nice to have something to talk about other than the weather and the Queen's health. Your mind is not a cage. It's a garden. And it requires cultivating."
"We are all unkind from time to time. We all do things we desperately wish we could undo. Those regrets just become part of who we are, along with everything else. To spend time trying to change that, well, it's like chasing clouds."
"It's not Kartik's longing that hurts. It's my own. It's knowing that I'll never have what she has--a beauty so powerful it brings things to you. I fear I will always have to chase the things I want. I'll always have to wonder whether I'm truly wanted or whether I've just been settled for."
"It isn't that we do what we want. It's that we're allowed to want at all."
"We're all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they'd like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rincsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance."
"But forgiveness...I'll hold on to that fragile slice of hope and keep it close, remembering that in each of us lie good and bad, light and dark, art and pain, choice and regret, cruelty and sacrifice. We're each of us our own chiaroscuro, our own bit of illusion fighting to emerge into something solid, something real. We've got to forgive ourselves that."
"Shall I tell you a story? A new and terrible one? A ghost story?...Are you read? Shall I begin? Once upon a time there were four girls. One was pretty. One was clever. One charming, and one was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of them. Bad blood. Big dreams...They were all dreamers, these girls...One by one, night after night, the girls came together. And they sinned. Do you know what that sin was?...Their sin was that they believed. Believed they could be different. Special. They believed they could change what they were-damaged, unloved. Cast-off things. They would be alive, adored, needed. Necessary. But it wasn't true. This is a ghost story, remember? A tragedy. They were misled. Betrayed by their own stupid hopes. Things cold be different for them, because they weren't special after all. So life tooke them, led them, and they went along, you see? They faded before their own eyes, till they were nothing more than living ghosts, haunting each other with what could be. What can't be...There, now. Isn't that the scariest story you've ever heard."