Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
Author: Libba Bray
Page Count: 403 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre: Gothic, Young Adult
Year of Publication: 2003
50 words or less: After her mother's death, Gemma Doyle is sent to Spence Academy to learn social graces and prepare to be a society wife in Victorian England. While there she begins to learn about her own powers, as a woman and beyond, and struggles to find out her place in the world.
I received my copy of A Great and Terrible Beauty as a Christmas gift last year and I finally started reading it. I had a hard time deciding at first how I felt about this book and came dangerously close to shelving it several times, but ultimately, I'm glad I stuck it out.
Gemma Doyle is an interesting protagonist. I've read a lot of commentary that says that she's unusually and, some would say, unbelievably wise for not only her age but the time time period she calls home. I found that I enjoyed Gemma's voice as a narrator quite a bit, but I found it hard to understand why she would want to be friends (other than out of necessity) with the other girls at Spence Academy. First impressions of the girls at Spence were as follows: Ann, the doormat, Felicity, the conniver, Pippa, the wannabe, Elizabeth and Cecily, the sheeple. None of them seemed like appealing prospects for friends, especially to someone who comes off as savvy as Gemma does in the beginning of the book.
As I kept reading, though, I realized that the personas that were given to the girls at Spence were necessary for the theme that the book is trying to convey. In a way, the girls at Spence represent a spectrum of personalities. Felicity is one extreme, flamboyant and carefree, but assured in the fact that her family and social position can buy her way out of pretty much any scrape she might get into. As far as Felicity is concerned, there's no such thing as a check her mouth wrote that her butt can't cash.
On the other end of the spectrum is Ann. Downtrodden, ignored, and screaming out for sensation and companionship, Ann's low opinion of herself is only reinforced by the expectation that she's going to school for no other reason than to be able to find employment later on, probably as a nanny to future generations of Spence Academy students. The world of society balls and prosperous marriages that awaits the other girls at Spence is pretty much off limits to Ann; the social conventions that Felicity enjoys defying are the same ones that smother Ann at every turn.
In the middle somewhere, then, is Gemma. Gemma is aware that the high society version of a short drop and a sudden stop are what awaits them; watching Pippa struggle with the notion of marrying an old guy with whom she shares no interests simply to save herself from the ruin her father's gambling is ensuring only reinforces that idea. But what else exists for them? Servitude, like that which waits for Ann? Tedious, anonymous indolence, like that which appears to wait for Felicity? A sham of a marriage to a guy that makes Bartleby Bumble look like a caricature, like that which waits for Pippa? Gemma isn't satisfied with any of that, but doesn't see any other way out for much of the book.
The theme of choice is easily my favorite one of the many present throughout the book and is an element that I found way more interesting than any of the supernatural ones. The escapades in the realms teach each of the girls that they are responsible for the choices in their own lives, no matter how small or how mundane. The power of choice is a tremendous responsiblitiy, though, and that's a lesson that each of the girls has to learn in her own time. The entire book can also be taken as a commentary on the choices that women were forced to make during the Victorian times, and what choices were and were not available to them. The theme of power, and what it takes to achieve power, is a strong message as well.
A Great and Terrible Beauty has the definite burden of being the first in a series. The premise is incredibly interesting, the prose is beautiful and engaging, but there are a lot of loose ends and facets of the story that weren't fully explored. Be that as it may, I finished the book and was interested enough in the story to get the next two books out of the library, which I'll post about here. I'm definitely interested to see if/how my opinion of the story changes with the two additional volumes.
I'll leave you, then with a quote from my favorite character in the book, Miss Moore, the drawing teacher. I've heard that she features again in the other two books, and I sincerely hope that's true, especially if I get to read more gems like this:
'I know because I read.' She pulls back and stands, hands on hips, offering us a challenge. "May I suggest that 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.Something to ponder indeed.
Overall Grade: B+