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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Gothic Suspense Novel Chills, Thrills

I took another dip into Young Adult fiction this week, reading Libba Bray's first novel, A Great and Terrible Beauty. It's a mesmerizing Gothic suspense tale, chilling, and impossibe to put down once you've started reading.

The story concerns Gemma Doyle, a 16-year-old English girl living in India at the end of the 19th Century. Bored with her dreary life, she longs to escape to England. During an argument with her mother on this very subject, Gemma snaps and flees through a busy Indian marketplace. She is thrilled by her sudden freedom, even though she soon becomes lost. In the midst of this, she succumbs to a troubling vision that shows her mother dead, a black shape looming over her. Gemma awakes only to find that her vision has become fact. Now without a mother, Gemma is shipped off to Spense Academy, an English boarding school. Although she is determined to become a proper lady there, she can't shake the sinister visions. It doesn't help that she's the strange new girl, or that she's become aware of a handsome stranger watching her every move.

Thanks to her discovery of one girl's shocking secret, Gemma suddenly finds herself in the center of Spense's circle of popular girls. To quelch the boredom of school life, they decide to form a secret society, like the one they've read about in an old journal Gemma found. Together, they enter "the realms," a world between worlds where they are free and powerful. The magic seems harmless, until the girls unleash it on their own world. Suddenly, they are in deeper than they ever imagined. As the secrets of "the realms" reveal themelves, Gemma and her friends suddenly realize that they are dealing with a power they not only don't understand, but also can't control. Gemma is stunned to discover her mother's connection to The Order as well as her own.

It's not the strongest plot, but it was compelling enough to keep me reading (and ignoring housework), desperate to find out what happens to Gemma and her friends. I read a review of the book that called the characters "unlikable," an idea with which I agree somewhat. Gemma is a sympathetic protagonist, with enough wit to be an engaging narrator. Felicity, her rich, beautiful friend is complex and unpredictable, making her just as interesting. The rest of the characters are somewhat bland, it's true, but I was willing to read about them just the same. Perhaps the most masterful element of the book is the mood it evokes. From the first page, it's somber and downright creepy. As Gemma travels to and arrives at Spense, the mood darkens even further and never lets up. It's that more than anything that makes this such a chilling novel.

A Great and Terrible Beauty is foremost a horror story, but it's also a commentary on the imprisoning lives of 19th Century women. Gemma and her friends are being groomed to be one thing - marriageable. Their parents use them as pawns to secure wealthy, well-bred futures, seemingly disregarding their daughters' desires. This problem becomes painfully obvious when Gemma's friend, Pippa, becomes unhappily engaged to a man 30+ years her senior, because he is rich enough to save her family from financial ruin. Echoing the feelings of her peers, Gemma says, "We are 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 rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance." (page 305) This, more than anything else, is what makes "the Realms" so appealing to the girls. While Bray does an excellent job of showing the imprisonment the girls face, I think she errs in not showing ANY examples of happy marriages. The only one that comes close is the union between Gemma's parents. Even that, however, is discredited in this conversation between Gemma and her brother, Tom:

"Mother was Father's equal," I say coolly. "He didn't expect her to walk behind him like some pining imbecile."

Tom's smile falls away. "Exactly. And look where it's gotten us." (page 27)

Still, my only real beef with the novel is that I believe it is too sexually mature for young adult readers. Don't get me wrong, there are no graphic sexual scenes. There is, however, plenty of innuendo, as well as faint lesbian undertones. These, combined with the sinister tone of the whole novel, make it more of an adult book in my mind. I admit it could just be my prudish side coming out, but I don't think I would let my teenager read this book. Despite this, I enjoyed the novel and found that it did what all good books do - it transported me to a world apart from my own.

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