In this debut gothic novel mysterious visions, dark family secrets and a long-lost diary thrust Gemma and her classmates back into the horrors that followed her from India.
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?
So there’s something about me that you’ve all probably figured out by now, and it’s that I’m a book hoarder. I buy books and I tend to leave them on my shelves for weeks, months, even years before even contemplating picking it up. I am aware that this is my problem. I just want all the books. But with this book, it’s not actually a book I bought myself. I feel so ashamed about this, but someone had lent me this book about three years ago, saying that it seemed like something I would like, and after reading the synopsis I took it home and it sat on my shelf ever since. I kept thinking “oh, it’s not the right time to read this yet” and it’s a vicious thing that kept going on for years. Moral of the story: don’t lend out your books (to me). But I was in between books so I finally decided to give it a chance and holy crap, am I kicking myself for putting this off for so long. I not only underestimated the story this book would tell me but I underestimated Libba Bray, and all those who said such wonderful things about her writing. I honestly have very little to complain about with this book, other than I’m so dumb for not reading it immediately.
- There are two enormously shocking things about this book. The first is that the writing is so well done, and the second is that this book was published in 2003. Do you think I knew that going into this book? Because I did not. I was under the assumption that this book was from five years ago, not sixteen. So colour me shocked when I learned that. But I think the reason I feel Bray’s writing was so fantastic is the fact that it’s a style so ahead of its time and something that I can very much see being done today. It made me feel like this was a current story or piece of writing, and I feel like that’s very hard to do. There have been times where I’ve read a book from, say, 2012, and I can very much tell that it was clearly a book from 2012. I don’t want to say that YA wasn’t taken overly seriously back then, or even the years before that, but it didn’t have the same caliber of writing that today’s YA has; that’s just a fact. And there have also been times where writing from the 20th century is very blatantly from the 20th century, and that writing is so hard for me to digest personally and why I tend to ignore it. But this book is either so ahead of its time or just a piece of pure genius from Libba Bray and I can’t decide which compliment is better. Even looking at the setting of the book, being the late 19th century in England where girls go to finishing school to learn to be proper ladies, it should be filled to the gills with stiffness and properness but it just felt so modern and simple yet eloquent at the same time, and I just couldn’t get enough of the story Bray was telling me.
- I am 100% in love with Gemma Doyle and I’m not even sorry. Just to make myself sound even worse, I started another book after reading 20 pages of this one because I didn’t know what to think about Gemma yet, or whatever story this book would tell, but I knew there was something about Gemma. I think it goes back to the greatness of Bray’s writing, but every time Gemma had a witty comment or sarcastic inner monologue, it felt like I was reading my own thoughts. She was so snarky and it was such a joy to see what she was thinking. But she’s also the type of girl who doesn’t believe or give into all of these 19th century ideals and I made a joke about how it made me want to put my head through a wall and I’m fairly certain Gemma feels the same way. I love how she constantly challenged these ideals and never let society or the expectations of men change her and morph her into the perfect little wife. Whether it’s 2003 or 2019, Gemma Doyle is a feminist icon and I love everything she’s doing.
- There were a lot of important themes that Bray wove throughout the story, the main one clearly being feminism, but I also think another was the importance of female friendship. There’s also the theme of choice and it’s something I can see truly coming into play throughout the rest of the series. The feminist theme is probably the most important one I found in this book because of the setting the story is in and how in the 19th century, women were still objects and there to be seen, not heard, and were mainly there to be the good little wife for the big, powerful man. I love how Gemma, being at a finishing school where she’s to learn exactly that, still manages to break away from that and shows her friends that their lives don’t have to be this way and that they can be their own people. They can have opinions and voices and goals and dreams, and nothing should stop them from that. And that kind of leads to the importance of female friendships, since the two go hand in hand a bit. When Gemma first starts at Spence, she’s a bit of an outsider but because of her courage and overall personality, she manages to match the intimidating girls and they then form their own group, but Gemma also ensures the scholarship girl, the one left out and made a joke of, is included in this group. And these four girls, Gemma, Anne, Felicity, and Pippa, all bring different strengths and qualities to their group and stick with each other no matter what. I love seeing such a strong and important female friendship and it’s one of the book’s strongest points.
- I was worried that a romance subplot was going to overtake all the feminism of the book, but it didn’t even come close to being a subplot, in my opinion. There was enough of it to make me see potential in a romance between Gemma and Kartik but it wasn’t overpowering in the way that it took away from more pressing matters. They definitely have tension and I love it but I’m glad it was taking a far back seat. Though, if I had my way, I think a romance between Gemma and Felicity would be better but this is 2003 so I’m not getting my hopes up.
- Part of me feels that the overall plot was fine, but getting a firm grasp on the conflict and understanding this magic within Gemma took some time. I think after finishing, it makes sense now, but it took time. However, I do want to point out that Bray did such a great job with her plot twists and I love how they were connected to Gemma’s story and past stories as well, and I didn’t figure them out as fast as I usually do. I just feel like the introduction to this “world” was a bit underwhelming and the purpose of Gemma and her magic was confusing for the better half of this book. I get it now, though. Now, it makes sense.
- Just…19th century ideals. God. This isn’t a bad thing about the book, more like a bad thing about the world and history. I still might put my head through a wall, who knows.
THE BOTTOM LINE
- I severely underestimated this book and its capability of giving me such a great story. It had historical and gothic elements, as well as themes of feminism and empowerment woven throughout, that made for such an exciting and chilling tale. This book really was a great and terrible beauty and I will kick myself forever for taking so long. Oh, and to the person who lent me this book: sorry, but you’re not getting it back.
BONUS: how this book made me feel in a GIF
ABOUT THE BOOK
Title: A Great and Terribly Beauty (Gemma Doyle #1)
Author: Libba Bray
Release Date: December 9, 2003
Pages: 403 (Paperback)
Until next time,
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