This book was one of the first YA books that I ever fell in love with, and rereading it made me remember why I love this series, this author, and this genre so much.
Gemma Doyle, sixteen and proud, must leave the warmth of her childhood home in India for the rigid Spence Academy, a cold finishing school outside of London, followed by a stranger who bears puzzling warnings. Using her sharp tongue and agile mind, she navigates the stormy seas of friendship with high-born daughters and her roommate, a plain scholarship case. As Gemma discovers that her mother’s death may have an otherworldly cause, and that she herself may have innate powers, Gemma is forced to face her own frightening, yet exciting destiny . . . if only she can believe in it.
*I took this synopsis from the Random House website because I did not like the Goodreads one.*
This was my fourth time reading A Great and Terrible Beauty. Even so, I hadn’t read the story since I started high school, so it was strange experience because I simultaneously remembered nothing and everything.
I absolutely loved Gemma as our protagonist. She was a perfectly imperfect main character. She tried to be a good person, but she also had jealousies and insecurities; she could be charitable and spiteful in equal measure. However, even when she did something ridiculously stupid, I always understood why she was making that choice, which for me is the most important part of writing a protagonist. She is trapped between wanting to be the perfect daughter society wants and wanting to figure out who she really is.
I also adore the setting of this book. After watching her mother be murdered inexplicably, Gemma leaves her home in India and is sent to a British finishing school to be transformed into a proper British lady. Bray’s depiction of turn-of-the-century England is gorgeous and unforgiving, capturing both it’s charms and its faults. Spence, the school Gemma is sent to, has an unmistakable atmosphere, equal parts strict discipline and eerily supernatural.
And then there are the characters Gemma meets at Spence: Ann, the shy scholarship student; Pippa, the spiteful and jealous beauty; and Felicity, the harsh and power-hungry queen bee. Each of them begins the story with a simple persona, but as Gemma gets to know each girl better, their hidden layers are revealed.
Truly, these girls are some of the most “alive” characters I have ever read. The way that their moods shift depending on small events or subtext, the way that each character has a different dynamic with each other character—they feel real in a way that other characters just don’t.
It is not a perfect friendship, or even a particularly healthy one at at times. The four girls are bound together by secrets and jealousies as much as they are by genuine affection. However, they are also intensely close with each other, craving each other’s company. This creates a group dynamic that is nothing like the cheery, all-for-one-and-one-for-all friendships I typically see in YA.
Warning time: this book totally has girl-girl hate, spitefulness, and bitchiness. If that is not your thing, I respect that…but I would ask that you do not write off this book immediately because of it. Unlike a lot of Mean Girl-type characters, every bitchy girl in this book has a reason for their actions, whether that be society’s prejudices or their own secret fears. Because of this, their hatefulness makes sense and helps develop the story and their characters instead of existing just to have an evil clique for the protagonist to conflict with. In all honesty, I 100% did not mind the girl-girl hate in this book (but if you did, I understand where you are coming from).
Finally, the supernatural side of this book. From the moment Gemma’s mother is murdered, Gemma knows that something is not right with her. She starts having over-powering and terrifying visions and ends up discovering a magical and dangerous place called the Realms.
I LOVE the paranormal side of A Great and Terrible Beauty. As the title suggests, the magic Gemma discovers is both wonderful and horrible. This book has some incredibly creepy scenes, but it also has girls turning leaves into butterflies. From this, the book—and the entire series—explores the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, in a really interesting and creative way.
There is a little bit of romance, but it does not dominate the plot at all. Most of the “romantic” parts of the book are really just Gemma discovering herself and breaking away from her society. I really appreciate that the author chose to have Gemma go through a sexual awakening without falling in love. It’s different from the standard YA mold and it makes more sense with Gemma’s character.
A Great and Terrible Beauty has at its heart the themes of rebellion and self discovery. Even though the girls were raised in an extremely conservative society, they rebel and dare to wish for forbidden things. Still, every character has a reason for their rebellion, something that makes their rebellions so much more poignant.
I would recommend A Great and Terrible Beauty to fans of historical settings and paranormal stories who also want to read about the day-to-day discoveries of Gemma and her friends as they suffer through finishing school. It is an emotional, well written story that asks the reader questions that it does not always have the answer for.