A Great and Terrible Beauty – Review

If I were feeling facetious, I’d probably call A Great and Terrible Beauty a “great and terrible book.” As it is, I’ll say that it’s not actually terrible but neither is it great. It was good and if it hadn’t been for one thing, it would have been a great read.

The spoiler-free gist of the plot is as follows:

Gemma Doyle is sixteen, living in India, and wants nothing more than to go to England. She gets her wish, but under painful circumstances—her mother dies and she discovers that she has strange powers. She goes to a fashionable but mysterious boarding school where she attempts to make friends, learns the meaning of her powers, and must decide how to use them.

What I Liked

I’ll start with what I liked. The story itself was excellent and I grew rather attached to the heroine and her friends. I was impressed by Ms. Bray’s ability to start us off disliking several people who become main characters and how she peels back layers and secrets and allows them to grow and develop. I didn’t feel there was anything static about the main four girls.

Also, I generally dislike books with first-person narrators, but this one worked. Kudos to Ms. Bray for writing Gemma’s voice in a way that is entirely believable, at times annoying and frustrating (in a way that brought me back to my own sixteen-year-old self), and interesting.

What Was Annoying As Hell

I recommend the book but I suggest you be prepared for this one thing that annoyed the hell out of me. On one point, Ms. Bray was unable or unwilling to use the nuance that she displays elsewhere. She used a hammer to bang out the theme of feminine disenfranchisement.

Yes, we get it. Women have generally been repressed. This is a bad bad bad thing. But there’s a difference between a motif and a sermon. I felt like Ms. Bray took this theme/motif over the edge. Honestly, it was as bad as reading Macaria, a painfully propogandistic (and popular) book with the opposite message…urging women of the South to sacrifice themselves and their men during the Civil War.

Every single character talks about the issue, a few lamenting it and the rest OFTEN saying “Well, you know, it’s not like we want girls thinking for themselves.” Since I was listening to every single word, I couldn’t just skim past it. Those parts were like being pulled out of the actual plot into an aside (“Oh, by the way, isn’t it just awful, dear reader, how women were treated back them and had no agency?”). Some parts were as bad as hanging out with a fundamentalist relative who’s constantly turning the conversation to preach at one. It was very disappointing.

Obviously, writing for teens (the target audience) is different than writing for adults, but my sixteen-year-old self probably would’ve been even more annoyed and refused to read it. I dislike being preached at, especially about things I agree with. This theme has been done in books, and almost always been done better.

Read or Don’t Read?

I’m glad that I didn’t give up on it because I really did enjoy the plot. I even recommend it to anyone who thinks that the annoying part is something that either wouldn’t bother them or wouldn’t bother them too badly.

If you read Twilight with its limp and pasty heroine, then maybe this book is the antidote.

That said, I don’t think I’m going to be reading the rest of this series. I want to hope that she’s learned a little more subtlety in the interim or felt she got the point across enough in the first book that we don’t have to go through that all again. But there’s so much more I could be reading.


  1. Kara says:

    I started reading this a few summers ago at the recommendation of a cousin (who’s 7 years younger than me), but I couldn’t get into it. I think I read about half of the book and then finally gave up on it. It’s not been a popular read in our school library, either. I agree that novels written for teens when read by adults can be a bit hit-or-miss, but I find, personally, they’re more often a hit. Just not Libba Bray’s work.

  2. Spring says:

    Hm, maybe I’ll pick it up if I see it at the library. Usually, if the characters are at least likable, I can forgive some stuff.

    Enough cannot be said for the art of subtlety. I think this is true not only for fiction, but for life in general, heh. I was a creative writing major, and one story I was particularly proud of was where, in the background, it becomes very clear to the reader that the husband is cheating on the wife. It also becomes clear that everyone in the story knows about the affair but isn’t saying it. And it was all done without ever actually stating it.

    So, yeah. I’m with you. I like the “undercurrent” approach, not the “beat this into you” approach. Have you read any Kelley Armstrong? She’s decent. Better than the Twilight series, but that goes without saying, lol.

  3. Ruth says:

    @Kara I probably would’ve put it down like I did Makes if it hadn’t been an audiobook. Listened to it while cleaning and such.

    @Spring in this book, that kind of subplot element would’ve probably been handled by every character remarking “Poor Mrs. Jenkins, she has no idea that her husband’s cheating on her.” Haven’t read any Kelley Armstrong, no, I’ll check her out. :)

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