Sunday, May 9, 2010

"A Great and Terrible Beauty" by Libba Bray

Summary: Gemma Doyle is a 16-year-old British girl living in India when her mother is suddenly killed in mysterious circumstances only Gemma is aware of.  Gemma is sent off to boarding school in Victorian England where she befriends three girls: the beautiful Pippa, the conniving Felicity, and the meek Ann.  With her friends, Gemma begins to explore a group known as the Order and realize that she has powers that enable her and her friends to visit the other-worldly realms.  But Gemma learns that there are dangers as well as pleasures to the realms, and that her mother is more wrapped up in it than she had imagined.

Musings: This is my first audiobook review here.  In general, I've not been particularly interested in audiobooks except for when my husband plays them on long car rides.  But, now that I can download a number of audiobooks free from the library (and straight onto my iPhone), it's even easier to listen to them.  I listened to A Great and Terrible Beauty whenever I was doing chores or other monotonous work around the house, so it took me well over a month to finish the book, rather than the few days I'd normally take.

Typically this book would not be on my to-read list.  The cover has a photograph of a girl's back (photographs and disembodied people all equal "ugh" in my mind), and "Victorian boarding school novel" is not something I'd immediately run to.  But, I loved Bray's Going Bovine so much that I was willing to give this book a chance.

I knew going in that Going Bovine and A Great and Terrible Beauty were significantly different, and that's certainly the case.  The zany wackiness, absurdity, and humor I loved in Going Bovine are not present here, and the story--for the most part--is significantly more conventional.  In fact, I was initially turned off by the standard beginning of the novel.  Gemma is a slightly rebellious teenager who spends most of the opening whining about her life.  When she gets to the stuck-up boarding school, she is made roommates with the unpopular dumpy girl Ann and the cool and popular girls--Pippa and Felicity--hate Gemma and try to make her life miserable.  Ho-hum.  Fortunately this set up is done away with quickly, and the book moves into the four girls' tentative friendship and their exploration of the Order and the realms.

The girls are standard archetypes, but they're also shown as multi-faceted people.  Each of the friends is "damaged" in some way, and much of the allure and danger of the realms comes from each girl's desire to change her course in life.  I also loved the way the girls are willing to break the rules, acknowledging that Victorian girls could be just as "bad" as teenagers today.

The supernatural elements of the novel never quite settled with me fully, and perhaps that was because I was listening to the book in bits and pieces.  I couldn't get a full grasp of what it was and the good and evil elements of the place.  Nonetheless, I liked the mystery that the realms provided.

Bray also includes significant feminist commentary throughout the book, particularly related to the social expectations of how women should act and the limited options available to women.  The realms give the girls power they cannot have in the real world, which seeks to control their every action.

The only significant male figure in the book is Kartik, a mysterious Indian man who follows Gemma from England and warns her against the danger of entering the realms.  Bray does a great job of making Kartik hot and dreamy, and the book includes probably the most erotic scene I've read in YA (especially odd considering there really isn't any romance), but I just didn't understand Kartik's presence.  He's around but never does much, and I don't know that the novel would have been any different without him.  I'm assuming he'll play a large role in the following two books of the series.

Josephine Bailey, the narrator of the audiobook, does a nice job distinguishing the girls' voices. As I mentioned, Gemma comes off whiny early on, but I grew to like her.  Unfortunately the second book in the series, Rebel Angels, isn't available in audiobook from my library download, so I'll have to actually read it.  It'll be interesting to compare my experiences with the series in two different mediums.

I'd recommend the book to anyone who likes light fantasy and a twist on the standard boarding school drama.

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