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Voices: Coming of Age in 'A Great and Terrible Beauty'

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When A Great and Terrible Beauty begins, Gemma Doyle is just a typical British teenager at the end of the 19th century.  She fights with her mother and wants to go to London and experience society.  On her 16th birthday, her mother is attacked, but kills herself before she can be taken by the terrible monster that has cornered her.  Gemma is promptly sent off to boarding school in England, like she had wanted – but having just lost her mother, the last thing she wants is to leave the only home she has ever known.  She is left alone and depressed in a strict boarding school in the middle of the wet English countryside.

Should someone judge the cover of this book, they would probably pass it off as a smutty historical romance – but this novel is so much more!  Not only does Gemma find out about the existence of realms and a secret society of women who guard over them, she also has to figure out how she fits into society.  She feels completely out of place in conventional 19th century society.  She is not the “perfect girl” that Spence Academy tries to produce – she doesn’t dance well, she doesn’t always keep her mouth shut, she is not looking for a husband, and she doesn’t want to just blindly do what people tell her.  She constantly feels like she doesn’t fit in among the girls of Spence Academy.

I love when Gemma makes tentative friendships, and she and the three other girls decide to rebel and make their own “secret society.”  They drink, stay up late, and talk about all of the dirty things that they are supposed to avoid as ladies.  They share with each other their secret desires, things that their parents and teachers could never find out if they wish to keep a place in society.

Gemma is such a wonderful character – she is not the strongest girl, and she makes a lot of mistakes because of her conflicting desires to both fit in and be free from the oppressive society around her.  She wants friends, but she doesn’t want to become some trophy wife who is supposed to “lie back and think of England” when the time comes.  She’s a teenager, so she is still trying to figure out what she wants in life, and she’s dealing with all of the trials and tribulations that come along with this age – including new feelings about the Indian boy, Kartik, who follows her to England to warn her about the realms.  This creates tension, especially later in the trilogy, because of their different ethnicities and classes.

Author Libba Bray creates this wonderful story of a girl trying to find her place in the world.  Gemma wants to fit in, but can’t, because she feels so oppressed by the very society she lives in.  Gemma is so easy to relate to because she is so imperfect.  But the realms, and the issues surrounding them, create this extra layer of problems, and they also create a temporary escape for the four girls in this story.  It makes the story even more involving, and gives Gemma a way to grow and become her own person.  I also love how realistic this novel is, outside of the realms.  Libba Bray shows how there is goodness and happiness in the world, but we also have to accept and acknowledge the bad in order to move on.  As Gemma says, “There’s an awful lot of gray to work with.  No one can live in the light all the time.”  But we are also left with hope: “Dans chaque fin, il y a un début…In every end, there is also a beginning.”  I love the realism combined with optimism and hope.  This trilogy explores so many social issues as well as the issues of coming of age.  A Great and Terrible Beauty also helped restart the trend of mixing fantasy with history.

–Alyssa Krueger

Photo: Writerswrite

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Written by whitney teal

April 15, 2010 at 10:07 am

Posted in Voices

Tagged with ,

One Response

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  1. I have not read all of “A Great and Terrible Beauty” yet, but I fully intend to, especially after reading this review. The character of Gemma seems like she will be great fun to read about. From the description provided here (and from the first chapter I have read), she seems like a strong but conflicted young woman, someone to whom I could easily relate. This is one reason why I find books written with magical realism so compelling. Fusing the fun adventures of fantasy with the poignancy of reality makes a narrative all the more interesting. Libba Bray’s novel certainly seems like one such story that is sure to enrapture!

    Becky Zajac

    April 19, 2010 at 11:44 am


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