Sunday, July 18, 2010

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

I fear I'm about to commit Book Blogging suicide. This book gets a lot of attention and praise so I hope that if you loved this book you'll go easy on me here... But I'm getting ahead of myself. A summary:

In 1895, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle leaves India after her mother’s untimely death to attend Spence, a finishing school in England. While mourning her mother, Gemma must also deal with snotty classmates, unnerving visions that come true and the young man who has followed her to England to “watch” her. Things spiral out of control as Gemma experiments with friendships and her new magical ability.

The story is told in first person from Gemma’s point of view and I felt she had a very authentic 16-year-old voice. She quarrels with her mother, pouts about things that are “not fair” and has a spunky sense of sarcasm that helps her get through difficult times.

The characterizations of the main girls were strong in that I felt they had distinct personalities which added to the story-line. However, I didn’t care for Gemma or her friends. They all seemed spoiled, even Ann the “charity case,” constantly whining about their situations. The uppity girls deride their classmates, including each other, and Gemma caves to their peer pressure. She doesn’t always like what her friends say/do but she doesn’t try hard to stop them either. Considering Gemma’s the one with the powers I thought it was rather weak and selfish of her to stand by friends who were so petty. Now, none of these girls’ lives are as great as they seem on the surface – no one’s is – but that’s not an excuse to treat others like dirt. Not connecting well with the main characters was a real drawback to my total experience with the book.

I wanted to know more about the headmistress, Mrs. Nightwing. Her character could have been bolder for me. I kept waiting for her to jump into the action and she didn’t. Also, the mysterious boy, Kartik – what is he doing in this story? He confuses me. If he’s going to threaten Gemma then get rough with her, don’t just leave notes on her pillow. If they’re going to fall in love then they’ll have to interact more for that to happen. It starts to happen, but more or less we’re left with Gemma’s fantasies about him (which are pretty graphic for the 12-year-old recommendation given by my library – eek!). When the book ended I still didn’t know who Kartik was or how he truly felt about Gemma’s magic abilities or her as a person.

A Great and Terrible Beauty
is the first of a series so maybe the next books will address some of the issues I had with the characters. Unfortunately, I’m just not into Gemma Doyle enough to care about what happens to her to bother reading any more. Too many cliches (boarding school kids sneaking out to get drunk... this is so overworked) and obvious endings (selfish people become easy to predict).

This is a well loved novel by many and I think I must be strange for not liking this book. I think Bray’s writing is fine and dandy. She's obviously got talent. There was enough drama that kept me turning pages. But ultimately, this story was not for me.  On an aside, here's a fun interview with the author.
Delacorte, 2003       Pages: 403    Recommended Age: 15 and up
Rating: 2 Stars        Source: U of Iowa Libraries   


  1. I haven't read this one, but I can tell you that there were 2 books that everyone love that I wasn't too crazy about! I mean I liked them, but I don't think I'll pick up the sequels when they'll be published, so it can happen to anyone ;)

  2. I liked the book a little more than you, but I agree with most of your comments. I hated how easily Gemma gave into everything and for a YA novel I thought it was kind of a bad example for the main character to give. I struggled my way through it.