Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

 Courtesy of

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

“When we step through that door of light again, the garden realm is there to welcome us with its sweet smells and bright sky … I don’t know how much time I shall have with my mother, and a small part of doesn’t want to share that time with my friends.” ~ p. 272

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a YA novel mixed with supernatural elements. Not my conventional read, I found it fast and entertaining. The Victorian-age story, written by Libba Bray, reveals the struggles of Gemma Doyle.

She wants to leave India and go to school at Spence—a London school for girls. Her mother tells her it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and Gemma cannot figure out why her mother is reluctant to return to London where she can receive a young lady’s proper education and her father might recover from his Opium addiction.

After her mother’s suicide, Gemma attends Spence as an outspoken yet mysterious person who matches any girl. She forms a friendship with three girls: Felicity, Pippa and Ann. All want something. They are relatable for twenty-first century girls with separated families, parents who have abandoned them, or face addiction.

The bottle goes around a few more times till we’re all loose-limbed as new calves. I’m now floating inside my skin. I could go on floating like this for days. Right now, the real world with its heartbreak and disappointments is just a pulse against the protective membrane we’ve drunk ourselves into.” ~ p. 141

I am not crazy about the description of the main realm the girls enter. In that case, the reader can tell Bray definitely wrote the book for teenage girls dreaming of the day their prince will come. Since I’ve written from a male perspective for six years, and read so many books by male authors in relation to my writing; I grow bored with girly aspects of the book. Bray’s descriptions of the fairytale realm are well-written, but it makes one think it is happy bubble, lollypop time.

That said, there are equally scary parts of the book in which darkness and evil takes a physical and demonic shape in both the supernatural and what a person—with the best of intentions—is capable of doing to another.

Perhaps what I appreciate the most in the book is its message of atonement between parent and child. If an adolescent girl is reading the Gemma Doyle trilogy, it is encouraging to know YA authors show the realities of the relationship between parents and children.

What I loved the most was written in Bray’s acknowledgements in the beginning: “And especially Josh for being so patient when Mommy had to finish just one last thing.” As a writer-educator-mother who works with trucks crowded under her desk, I appreciate this sentiment.

Overall, the book is worth a read if you are interested in YA, supernatural or teenage girls’ misadventures.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty

  1. Interesting assessment. It surprises me that you suggest Bray’s intended audience are the young girls who are “waiting for the day their prince may come,” considering the author’s background and the books heavily feminist themes.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree she does use heavy feminist theme in regards to certain characters, but if you look at the character, Pippa, you know she wants to be something more, yet there is the hopeless romantic in her. In the end–not that I want to give away the end–she choses to stay in the realm instead of return to the real world where she is loved. Not the entire audience is composed of teen girls. I read the book and found it to be a good read. Thank you again for your comment!

      1. (Please feel free to keep this comment in moderation if you fear it gives too much away. I’m not sure how to send you a private message, or I would have done that)

        I’d argue that feminist themes are some of the most prominent in the book– indeed, Gemma is constantly in a battle against patriarchy, rather it be in the form of the Rakshana or the Victorian society. It seemed to me that Pippa rebelled against her predestined role as the damsel waiting for her prince, and that’s why she chose to stay behind in the realms. Like the woman in the poem Bray references several times (The Lady of Shalot), Pippa committed suicide (or more accurately risked death, though personally I’d qualify what she did as attempted suicide, as she was under the impression that she would cross over–and technically she is dead anyway) to escape her “tower.”
        There may be grand descriptions of beauty in the description of the garden– which I thought was alluding to Eden– but I think you’d be hard pressed to find a single character who was waiting for her prince to come, aside from Anne of course. But even then, Anne’s longing is portrayed as folly.
        And you’re welcome! I’ve been dying for someone to discuss this book with.

      2. There is no doubt feminist themes are prominent in the book. I would say that however you look at themes in a book, it is about perspective. When I say “the day their prince will come,” it is not to say every character dreams of that literally. It is a symbolic saying for a kind of world. When I think of Bray’s description of the realm, when it is not in darkness, I think of a fairytale setting.
        I believe Bray reaches for the idea that girls want to become something more in life; and yet, she also writes to the little girl in all of us. There is a small portion in women or girls that fantasizes. The fantasy itself might be anything: our dreams, love, or a career. However, as it relates to the book the four friends go into another world judged fairytale by society. Even Snow White dreamed of something beyond cleaning and cooking for seven dwarves, which is the point.

        I do agree on Ann, and I think still to a point Pippa dreamed of finding true love or someone to appreciate her for something beyond her beauty. But, I also think the book hits on themes beyond feminism. It all depends on the reader’s perspective. As a Mom, I really liked the relationship of mother and daughter. When you learn what Gemma’s mother did and who she was, it evolves the story into something more. It reminds children parents where once children too, and they also made mistake. And, of course, there is the other theme of forgiveness.

        I’m glad you enjoyed the book. It is a very good book. I read YA fiction because I write some of it and I like to have things to talk about with students.

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