Monday, 16 March 2009

A Great and Terrible Beauty / Libba Bray

Summary - It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?

Review - I was at a loss after reading this novel. I enjoyed it - read it in one sitting without sighing or requiring a psych-myself-up-and-power-through-it pep talk. But I had many thoughts swirling in my head and very little in terms of answers.

The characterisation was very good. Gemma is vastly relatable. She's grieving her mother but also the lack of family with those that remain. She's fiery, defiant and strong. But she's oh so very flawed. Take her relationship with Felicity for instance. Initially they loathe one another, then they tolerate, accept and befriend one another. From mortal enemies to bosom buddies in what seems like the blink of an eye then turned on a dime to be antagonistic again. This perplexed me, Gemma knew (she was constantly reminded by the girl in question and by others) that Felicity wasn't a nice person and yet she concedes to this girl's wishes regardless.

Gemma has such a firm perspective of Spence that I was shocked when she befriends the school bully, bows to peer pressure and continually makes stupid decisions. Yet she's the secret keeper, swallower of truths. It's these truths that bug me - there's enough "issues" here to keep a teen help line busy for weeks. The thing is, we all have a strong inner dialogue that's true to ourselves and our perception of others. But it's what we do that often contradicts our thoughts and feelings. Most of the time Gemma knows what she's doing is wrong but she continues on her path without really pausing to consider why. The reason is she's too shallow to allow herself to know why. What irritated me as uneven characterisation now made sense. We aren't what we would like ourselves to be.

To be honest, it was the vagueness that ruined this book for me in many areas. I am not a person who requires all the answers to enjoy something (I have been a loyal viewer of Lost from the beginning if you need proof) but it was just a little iffy for me. Sarah and Mary - I get that the information on them is supposed to be spotty but I cannot believe that Gemma would not have read the diary through the first time she had it. To not have read it in it's entirety before sharing it makes no sense to me at all. Kartik - the whole romance angle was a waste of pages and served only to show that Gemma was "open minded" enough to lust after forbidden fruit. Circe - I guess very early on who it was correctly but her whole depiction felt very wishy washy. Mary - I knew who she was even earlier and never felt like it was a huge reveal. I am more interested to see the role that Miss Moore will play in the following tomes. I think she's a fascinating character and cannot wait to see what happens. Lastly, I really think the end of the Pippa character was a fitting closure.

I am intrigued by the future direction of this book. Although I find myself in a jumble about what the realms are, what the Order are trying to do and what's the purpose of the Rakshana, I would like to continue. I would also like to like Gemma more. I relate to her but I don't necessarily like her. And considering I despise pretty much everyone else in the book, I think liking the protagonist is pretty important. Here's to me getting my hands on Rebel Angels!

"Your mind in not a cage. It's a garden. And it requires cultivating." And this was the reason I kept with it. I like the message of empowerment through knowledge though I think words spoke louder than character's actions. It's the dichtomy of the book that both appeals me and repels me. It's the tug of war in my head that leaves me with no clue. Maybe the second book will clarify things for me, who knows?

Published: 2003
Format: Paperback, 416 pages
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Origin: USA
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Libba Bray's Official Site - awesome website
Novel's Playlist - Kate Bush is on it, squee
Tour of Spence
Libba's blog

3 comments:

Karen Mahoney said...

Awesome review! I had some similar thoughts, so this is interesting. I really liked the voice & style, but there was something about Gemma that irritated me. Not enough to stop me reading, but enough so that I didn't rush out for Book 2. I will return to it, for sure, because there's some superbly creepy stuff & some great writing here. Just... if I can't love the protag (even if you're supposed to 'love to hate them' - which clearly isn't the case with Gemma) then I'm in serious trouble loving the whole book.

Alea said...

Hmmmm, I guess I wasn't totally taken when I first read the blurb but heard how many people absolutely loved it. I guess we will see. And wow, I wish I could sit still that long with a book, it's impossible for me!

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, I also had very mixed feelings about this one.

I'm currently early in the third book, which so far I'm enjoying a lot more than I did this first one (I think Bray has grown as a writer over the course of these books), but my fundamental problem is the one you identify: Gemma is amazingly, blindingly stupidly, passive.

I think it happens because Bray isn't sure how else to set up her plot threads to keep the suspense, but it makes it hard to be very sympathetic to Gemma.

If you're interested, I wrote a much longer post about my frustrations with this element of the series, in the context of the first two books, over on my blog.