Gemma Doyle grew up in India, but after her mother commits suicide and her father becomes a laudanum addict, she’s sent to a finishing school in England. This is Victorian England, so at Spence Academy Gemma will be instilled with “grace, charm, and beauty” as she learns how to be a proper wife, mother, and hostess. Virtue, virginity, and the avoidance of scandal are of the utmost importance so that the ladies of Spence Academy will, upon graduation, reach their highest potential: to make a good marriage.
But A Great and Terrible Beauty is a gothic novel, which means that there is less grace, charm, and beauty than one should expect at Spence Academy. Instead, there are hidden secrets, dark rumors, strange disappearances and deaths, fearful servants, and a creepy old East Wing that inexplicably burned down 20 years ago. And, most importantly, each of the girls we get to know at Spence Academy has some sort of tragic past that makes her feel alone and unloved.
When Gemma gets to school she finds that the two most popular girls, Felicity and Pippa, are mean and nasty and, though she first stands up to them when they pick on Ann, Gemma’s weak snively roommate, the four girls are soon best friends when they discover that Gemma has access to the realms, a fantasy world where they have the power to make their dreams come true. Predictably, the girls learn that magic is hard to control and that it has a terrible price.
Overall, I enjoyed A Great and Terrible Beauty while recognizing that it wasn’t a great book. That’s because I listened to the audio version which was read by Josephine Bailey. Her voice is gorgeous and her English accents greatly contributed to the Victorian feel. I believe I’d enjoy anything read by Josephine Bailey.
When I consider the actual story, though, I have some issues with A Great and Terrible Beauty. First is that, without exception, all of the teenage girls are unlikable. While Gemma isn’t too bad by herself, it’s hard to think highly of her after she chooses her friends. Perhaps she didn’t have much to pick from, but we only meet a few of the schoolgirls, so we don’t know who else was a possibility. It was hard to believe in their shallow friendship and it reminded me of the unpleasant and selfish girls in the 1988 movie Heathers. I will admit, though, that Gemma and Felicity are clever and funny. Even though I didn’t like them much, their witty remarks often made me smile.
I understood and appreciated Libba Bray’s repudiation of the social mores of Victorian England — arranged marriages, priggish behavior, vapid and powerless women, complete abdication to men — but I had a hard time believing that Gemma and her friends, as products of that culture (and enrolled in a finishing school), would be so enlightened. Their obsession with personal power didn’t feel real.
The fantastical element, which is perhaps the most important part of a fantasy novel, also didn’t feel real or well thought out. The realms didn’t have consistent rules and there was a lack of logic and coherence. In fact, I got the impression that Libba Bray wanted to write a story about four tragic teenage girls in a Victorian boarding school who find power and that she threw in the magic stuff as the source of power, making this less of a fantasy novel and more of a historical novel about girls finding themselves. Ms. Bray’s audio afterword seems to confirm my suspicions.
Overall, A Great and Terrible Beauty is neither great nor terrible and will likely be quite entertaining for a teenage girl who likes gothic novels and doesn’t care about the issues I’ve raised here. I did enjoy the audio version despite my complaints, but I give Josephine Bailey a lot of the credit for that.