A Great and Terrible Beauty – Libba Bray

Wherefore: it was on Mount TBR, and I was waiting for my new Kindle
What: trade paperback
What else: present tense and first person

It was there, I was there, I picked it up and started reading it. And almost didn’t stop even when my eyelids were growing heavier and heavier in the wee hours. On the first page, I noted the use of present tense, flipped back a hundred pages or so (it’s a real book) and saw that it wasn’t just for that section, shrugged, and kept going. It fits. I could learn to really like the present tense, I guess; here it suits the narrative, a young woman’s thought processes as she navigates her completely changed world; it brings immediacy. (I’d better get used to it – this was at least the third book I’ve picked up this year, and another right after it.)

Reviews for this are all over the place – even more, I think, than is usual. One complaint I see quite a bit down there is that Gemma Doyle, Our Heroine, is not remotely a proper Victorian young lady. Well, no. She’s not. She’s sixteen, and believe me when I say from personal experience that sixteen sucks. Libba Bray says in the Q&A at the end of the book that, as I interpreted it, utter accuracy to the thought and speech patterns of the era were not the most important thing to her; the basic truth of the constrictions of the time period were. So – would Victorian maidens have sounded like these girls? Probably not. But do they sound like genuine girls, wounded and afraid and fighting their way through all the obstacles thrown up in front of them by an unfair universe? Yes.

We’re all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they’d like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.

Gemma has been brought up to the age of sixteen in India, where her father is serving. She is in fact turning sixteen on the day the first chapter describes, and she’s not happy. She wants to go to England. She is tired of India, and longs for the homeland she’s never known, and her mother’s constant refusal to let her go home to school frustrate her into temper tantrums. As her mother walks with her and her maid to the home of a friend, where Gemma has cake and very dull conversation to look forward to, the argument crops up as usual, and – as is becoming usual for her – Gemma says some rather unforgivable things and storms off. Then things become weird. She finds herself lost, and in the confusion of the marketplace is beset by a terrible vision of a man being killed, of her mother taking her own life. And the vision turns out to be true.

Next thing she knows, Gemma is getting her wish, and is off to school in England. And to continue the theme of “be careful what you wish for”, it’s dreadful. The school is a huge, forbidding fortress, imposing on the outside and gloomy inside; the other girls range from the “in crowd” of evil pretties and their hangers on to Gemma’s roommate, the scholarship student Ann, whose standing is not helped by her stutter. It’s about the worst possible scenario of a boarding school barring physical mistreatment. Being new would have been hard on anyone in that situation. Being new and fresh to the country and still guilt-ridden and mourning her mother and still trying to figure out what’s happening to her, along with never being possessed of the best social skills – this is Gemma’s plight. It isn’t pretty.

Remarkably, and partly through blackmail, she does wind up finding a circle of friends, of a sort. These are not, quite, the friends most young adult novels give their heroines. These are not the girlfriends with whom you’d make popcorn and watch chick flicks. These are the girlfriends who start up a vicious game of Truth or Dare which results in tears and possibly arrests.

But that’s why they’re there, these girls, in that school: no one wants them at home. They’re in the way, and little enough is expected from them that any benefit they can gain from this dismal school will be to the good. Ann will be a companion or a governess. Lovely Felicity and Pippa will marry rather well – their looks will ensure that, and if they can pretend to draw and speak French so much the better. And Gemma? No one really ponders Gemma’s future. She’s slotted away for the time being, so that her brother can continue with his life as best he can while quietly dealing with their opium-addicted father, and what happens after will happen.

“Their sin was that they believed. Believed they could be different. Special. They believed they could change what they were – damaged, unloved. Cast-off things. They would be alive, adored, needed. Necessary. But it wasn’t true. This is a ghost story, remember? A tragedy. … They were misled. Betrayed by their own stupid hopes. Things couldn’t be different for them, because they weren’t special after all. So life took them, led them, and they went along, you see? They faded before their own eyes, till they were nothing more than living ghosts, haunting each other with what could be. What can’t be.” Felicity’s voice goes feathery thin. “There, now. Isn’t that the scariest story you’ve ever heard?”

All of this makes the vein of magic that runs through the story all the more alluring. It gives access to another world which is everything they could ever want. Arrogant in their confidence that they know what they’re doing, and desperate for a way to carry the wonder over into their miserable lives, they ignore all the warnings they’ve received. And of course the consequences are dire.

I liked it. The writing engaged me – I guess I’m over the present-tense phobia – and while I have no warm and fuzzy feelings about any of the characters I do appreciate the way they’re drawn, and the mythical pseudo-Victorian world they inhabit. The theme is easy to sympathize with: There’s got to be something better than this.

But… Hold on. To quote Robert Sean Leonard as Neil Perry, “Oh my.” I hadn’t quite caught the really really strong parallels to a certain film before this very moment (see spoiler below). Oh dear. This changes things, a little…

Dead Poets Society: Set in boarding school in which there is no one of the opposite gender, at all (though boys illicitly meet with girls at parties and such). Main characters Neil and Todd, part of larger loose group. Parents of main characters cold and not exactly caring. Inspiring and provocative English teacher Mr. Keating who quotes poetry and encourages free thought. Students leave school grounds at night for secret club meetings – reviving a defunct club they’ve learned about. Neil defies parents and acts in a play, and has a moment of triumph, but it is short and he ultimately is punished with the threat of a military academy. Kills himself. Keating winds up the scapegoat blamed for the death and leaves the school in disgrace.

G&TB: Set in boarding school in which there is no one of the opposite gender, at all (though at least one girl meets with a boy in the woods). Main characters Gemma, Pippa, and Felicity, part of larger loose group. Parents of main characters cold and not exactly caring (or dead). Inspiring and provocative drawing teacher Miss Moore who quotes poetry and encourages free thought. Students leave school grounds at night for secret club meetings – reviving a defunct club they’ve learned about. Gemma defies just about everyone and does things with her magic; and Pippa defies her parents and tries to wriggle out of an odious engagement, and has a moment of triumph – but it is short and she is ultimately punished by having the wedding date moved up. Kills herself by insisting on remaining in magic world. Moore winds up the scapegoat blamed for the death and leaves the school in disgrace.

Um. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

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