A Great and Terrible Beauty
The year is 1895. Raised in colonial India, sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle wants nothing more than to leave the hot, sticky atmosphere for the civilized world of England, with its temperate climate, good education and bustling social scene. To her surprise, Gemma gets her wish in a dramatic and tragic way, when her mother is killed in a mysterious, supernatural attack and her father, unable to cope with his grief, becomes addicted to opium.
Gemma is now enrolled at the Spence Academy, an exclusive finishing school for young ladies. The high-spirited, free-thinking Gemma constantly finds herself in conflict not only with the school's rules and regulations but with the highly structured Victorian society of which the school is a part. Gemma is also unable to fit into the social atmosphere of the school itself --- the other students are catty and snobbish, unwilling to accept this new student with her unknown pedigree and unconventional ideas.
That is, until Gemma finds a diary, written twenty years before, that sheds light on Spence's history and her own prophetic visions. She discovers her ability to travel to the realms, a dream world where every girl's most passionate fantasy can come true. Joining her are three friends, secretly united by their midnight travels to this otherworldly realm. As the close-knit group becomes more daring and more caught up in the magic, they find themselves repeating the events that led to tragedy twenty years before.
It's probably inaccurate to call A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY a work of historical fiction. Although the setting is Victorian England, the characters, especially Gemma, are anything but Victorian. Instead, Gemma, with her frankness about sex, her astute and ironic commentaries about her social situation, and her desire for independence, seems like a twenty-first century girl dropped into 1895. That's not a problem, though, as long as readers don't expect historical and cultural accuracy from the novel.
In fact, the author has a lot of fun with the conventions of traditional boarding school novels, including such stock figures as the free-thinking teacher, the spiritualist and the mysterious gypsy woman. Those who are familiar with Victorian novels from Dickens to Bronte will probably greatly enjoy Libba Bray's send-up of typical characters and themes.
The supernatural elements of the book, though, are what set it apart from other novels of its type. The mythology of the realms and the magical Order to which Gemma and her mother belong are not fully developed in the novel. Neither does the story come to a satisfactory conclusion, as Gemma has yet to realize the full extent of her prophetic powers. Rumor has it, though, that A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY is but the first in a trilogy, and one hopes that these elements will be explored in more depth in the book's sequels.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 9, 2003