Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2017 novel The Beautiful Ones is an historical romance, a comedy of manners set in an alternate world. This world has the social mores and the esthetic of Europe’s Belle Époque (the late 19th century). Certain people in the world of The Beautiful Ones have telekinetic abilities, but while these abilities do play an important part in the story, this is not a story of magic unless it’s the magic of the human heart.
Hector Auvray is a “talent,” one who can move objects with his mind. While he is neither gentry nor aristocracy, he has amassed a great deal of wealth from his years of performing. Hector has returned to the city of Loisail to confront the love of his life, the woman who broke his heart ten years ago, Valerie Veries. Instead, at a party, a young woman named Antonina Beaulieu introduces herself to him. Antonina, who prefers Nina, is also a “talent.” It is considered disreputable for young ladies to move objects with their minds, but Nina has read about Hector and hopes he will tutor her a bit in the skill. Then Hector discovers that Nina is a country-cousin of Valerie, and is in fact staying in her house, and he hatches a scheme that involves visiting Nina as a way to see Valerie.
Nina is truly a country-cousin. She’s related to Valerie’s husband, Gaetan Beaulieu. She has come from a sprawling old estate in the country. Nina loves insects and collects beetles; she is genuine and sincere, which is an obstacle in the glittering, polite, stratified society of the city. Nina assumes other people share her traits, so she sees no ulterior motives in Hector’s visits, but her bitter, calculating cousin-in-law Valerie sees Hector’s plan for exactly what it is.
The Beautiful Ones follows the basic outlines of this type of book. There is a stolen letter, a change of scene from the city to the countryside, a house party, a betrayal, and a second suitor. Within these comfortable tropes, Moreno-Garcia develops the characters of all three major characters. Having fallen instantly in love once before, Hector is slower to recognize his growing feelings for Nina. Nina, betrayed by Hector, pushes through her grief and becomes a stronger, more confident character, and at the end a truly courageous one. While I never liked Valerie or even felt much sympathy for her, I understood her bitterness and her motivations completely. She is not pleasant, but she is completely convincing.
Secondary characters shine. We mostly see Gaetan through the eyes of Valerie, and it’s tempting to consider him the way she does: he’s weak, he’s boring, he’s stupid, but the glimpses we get through Nina’s eyes of her beloved cousin round out Gaetan and show us an honest, loving, honorable man. Luc Lemy, the fourth son of an aristocratic family, is charming, spoiled, and penniless. He is perfectly portrayed. Lesser characters, like Nina’s two eccentric great-aunts and her sister Madelena, are well-drawn as well. The Beautiful Ones creates a world peopled with characters who feel like actual people.
The prose itself supports this, with vivid visual descriptions. Usually these are of interiors, drawing rooms, dressing rooms, restaurants, but there are one or two lush descriptions of the countryside when Nina, Hector, and the Lemy brothers are at the Beaulieu country estate. Nina’s fascination with beetles means that Moreno-Garcia describes them, and their iridescent carapaces, at length, and those descriptions are worth every word.
As I said earlier, the telekinesis plays a part in the story, but not what you might expect. As the tension ramps up at the end, you might, like I did, think you know how telekinesis is going to save the day. Like me, you might be wrong. While Nina is clearly a powerful “talent,” it is love that saves the day.
I don’t choose love stories normally; they’re just not my thing. I read this one because I loved Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things. The Beautiful Ones completely won me over. If you love mannered, suspenseful, lushly written historical romances, pick this up. If you don’t, give it a try anyway. It might surprise you.