Top critical review
15 people found this helpful
60% great, 20% terrible, 20% beautiful
on May 20, 2004
What, in your opinion, is more important: What an author has to say or how an author chooses to say it? Take, for example, Libby Bray's, "A Great and Terrible Beauty". Set in a Victorian era girl's boarding school, the book has the uneasy task of having a great voice and yet not much in the way of a plot. Bray struggles to weave together the different components that made up (wealthy) women's lives in 19th century Britain. At times she is exceedingly gifted. At others, she falls short of the mark.
Gemma Doyle was born and raised in India with her mother, father, and brother. Having just turned sixteen she is like any other adolescent girl, getting into squabbles with her mom and pouting that she cannot go to live in England. Deliverance for Gemma comes as a very mixed blessing when she witnesses her mother's suicide (in a vision, no less) and is sent to an all-girl's finishing school outside of London. Falling into the usual petty squabbles of popularity and independence, Gemma eventually comes to realize that there is more to the Spence Academy, and herself, than she could ever have known. In a madcap tale of gypsies, magical powers, and deep dark soul-sucking evil Gemma has to face up to her own personal demons as well as the very real spirits that wish her, and her friends, harm.
One one level, this is just your typical romantic bodice-ripper complete with virile dangerous young men and the comedy of manners that set the standards so long ago. Reading this book really seemed to me to be a kind of "The Craft" meets "The Little Princess". Gemma befriends both popular and unpopular alike and much of the book dwells on the problems haunting each of her friends. While Bray has an excellent voice for dialogue and situational comedy, I couldn't quite figure out what she was trying to say with her characters. One minute the two popular girls, Pippa and Felicity, would be playing incredibly cruel tricks on their classmates. Next, Gemma is their best friend and they all bare their souls over cups of whiskey. While the story really does make you feel as if these girls are getting closer, I found it very weird that when some of the girls go over the edge and deal in dark magics and (in a sense) murder, Gemma is perfectly willing to forgive them three pages later and never mention it again. There is no blame in this novel, a thing I found peculiar (especially when you're dealing with sixteen year-olds). When Gemma's friends get an innocent teacher fired, Gemma minds for maybe two hours and then, once more, forgets.
Then there's the fact that we never meet the villain. This book might have just as well plastered the words, "SEQUEL COMING SOON" on its cover for all that it alludes to future books. It is very rare to read an entire book about a villain whose name appears from page seven onwards, and yet we never meet them even once. The resolutions in this book are shaky at best and though the bookflap for "A Great and Terrible Beauty" states this this is "the story of a girl who saw another way" out of the standard roles written for women, by the end Gemma really hasn't changed anything in the least.
And finally there are the gypsies. Why is it that gypsies are always the standard ethnic group for magical doings? There are actual gypsies in the world, you know. This book, however, prefers the romantic version, choosing to forget that they are an actual culture with actual dealings in the world. Turning gypsies into the mythical magical people that exist only in the minds of over-romanticizing white people not only does real gypsies a disservice but it makes books like this one offensive. I won't even dwell on how Bray chose to display natives of India as well. Let's just say this book reads best if you like rooting for Anglo-Saxons.
I'm being harsh on this book, and for good reason. Bray is capable of wonderful writing. The slow building threat of Gemma's situation,and the fact that she is repeatedly told to cease and desist all magic or pay the consequences, all this is very good and dark. Unfortunately, there's never a payoff at the end. The gypsy Kartik tells Gemma to stop or else, but he never makes good on his threat. Gemma never really pays for anything she's done either. I was so confused by what was good and bad in this story that I spent three quarters of the book believing that Gemma's mother, for all intents and purposes, was an illusion or an evil creature in disguise. That's just me, but in all other ways the book is very bad at rewarding the reader for slogging through the foreshadowing. And boy oh boy is there a LOT of foreshadowing. In any case, I think with a little rewriting this could have been an excellent novel. Unfortunately, we'll never know now.
None of this is to say that "A Great and Terrible Beauty" isn't a great read. It really is exciting and interesting. I'm simply warning you that it is possible that you might feel a little let down or cheated at the end. The climaxes never climax as much as they could. The fearful moments are never quite fearful enough. It's a book of halfs, never a whole. But for any reader who wants to dwell in the darkness a little and read a tale about a girl who has the capability of giving herself a great deal of power, go to it. It is, above all things, rather fun.