Saturday 14 August 2010

A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray (Simon and Schuster)
PB RRP $19.99
ISBN 978-073181454-1
Reviewed by Peta Biggin

It is 1895 and, after the death of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is sent from her life in India to Spence – an English boarding school for young ladies. Lonely and guilt-ridden, she initially struggles to fit in with the privileged girls she is surrounded by. She and her new friends, with the help of an old diary, embark on an exciting and, ultimately, dangerous adventure. As they begin to understand the nature of Gemma’s prophetic visions they are introduced to the mysterious Order and discover a gateway into the spiritual world. And what about the enigmatic young Indian man that seems to be following Gemma? How does he fit into the picture and why is he trying to stop her from developing her powers?

Originally published in 2003, A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first instalment of the gothic Gemma Doyle Trilogy. With strong female characters throughout, and the male characters largely ineffectual or threatening, it is certainly a book that would suit teenage girls. Gemma Doyle is forthright and courageous, whilst still being prone to all the angst and insecurity that comes with being a teenage girl. Similarly, Gemma’s friends, whilst both loyal and fearless in their own right, are fighting their own demons and this does give them additional depth as characters.

Whilst the story is predominantly a supernatural thriller, it also touches on other elements such as social class, sexual awakening and the position of women in Victorian society. It could be read in isolation as it does finish with some measure of closure. It does not, however, have a purely happy ending: Gemma’s feelings for her mysterious stalker remain unrequited and the circle of friends is rocked by the death of one of their own. There is certainly enough left unresolved to warrant diving into the second book of the series.

Overall, I found A Great and Terrible Beauty a great book; easy to read with a good even pace throughout. With historical fiction, supernatural themes and a dash of romance, it is easy to see why this book became a New York Times bestseller.

Libba Bray is an American YA novelist whose other titles include Vacations from Hell and Going Bovine, amongst several others. She currently lives in New York with her family and, according to her website, is related to Davey Crockett! A Great and Terrible Beauty was Libba’s first published novel and had been optioned by Icon to be turned into a movie. Unfortunately, negotiations fell through earlier this year and to date there are no further plans to put Gemma Doyle on the big screen.

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