Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Gemma Doyle, #1) by Libba Bray

Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
  • Title: A Great and Terrible Beauty
  • Classification: Young Adult (12+)
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Format: Paperback, 432 pages
  • Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers (March 22, 2005)
  • ISBN-10: 0385732317
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385732314
  • Author's website:
     “Shall I tell you a story? A new and terrible one? A ghost story?"  
      The voice, a faint echo in the cave, belongs to Felicity. She turns around on the rock, faces us, wraps her arms across bent knees, hugging them close. "Are you ready? Shall I begin? Once upon a time there were four girls. One was pretty. One was clever. One charming, and one..." She glances at me. "One was mysterious. But they were all damaged, you see. Something not right about the lot of them. Bad blood. Big dreams. Oh, I left that part out. Sorry, that should have come before. They were all dreamers, these girls."
      "Felicity...," I start, because it's her and not the story that's beginning to frighten me.
      "You wanted a story, and I'm going to give you one." Lightning shoots across the cave walls, bathing half her face in light, the other in shadows. "One by one, night after night, the girls came together. And they sinned. Do you know what that sin was? No one? Pippa? Ann?"
      "Felicity." Pippa sounds anxious. "Let's go back and have a nice cup of tea. It's too cold out here."
      Felicity's voice expands, fills the space around us, a bell tolling. "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."
      The lightning's back, a big one, two, three of light that lets me see Felicity's face, slick with tears, nose running. "They were mislead. 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.”

When Gemma's mom dies surrounded by mysterious circumstances in India, she feels somewhat responsible. She'd run away from her mom at the market place. If she hadn't run would her mother still be alive? Would she have seen what it was that was after her?

Now living in England, she is sent to a boarding school for girls where she befriends three other girls. The four girls unite for a magical school year. All are different in their own way, yet when broken down to their bare essentials, they are the same. Each wanting what everyone wants love, acceptance, and control over their lives. For one magical school year they get to forget their cares and worries and just live. As Gemma states, "What do you feel? I’ve never been asked this question once. None of us has. We aren’t supposed to feel. We’re British.” and “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.”  For one school year they dared to hope and dream that their fate could be different. 

At times the story felt a little like the tale of the Garden of Eden where the snake tempts Eve with the fruit of knowledge. Only the temptation was your hearts desire. The adjectives used to describe Circe at the beginning of the book is what prompted this image. Words used like slither and hiss. Plus, there is a scene where the apple from the story is discussed. Likewise, at times, the  book reminded me of 'Alice in Wonderland'--very crazy and unpredictable. Still, at other times it reminded me of the story of Pandora's Box, for if the magic was to get loose in this world, havoc would perhaps reign.

I liked the mystery of what happened to Mary Dowd and Sara Rees-Toome. Two girls who reportedly died in a fire. I liked Gemma and the mystery that surrounded her as to where her powers came from and just how powerful they were. I liked that she didn't know whose guidance to trust. I loved learning of the realms and what could be done in them. I loved the bonding that took place amongst the girls and the desperation they showed at the end.   

Why the name 'A Great and Terrible Beauty'? Well, I believe it has to do with the following paragraph when the girls become invisible to their classmates:
"Oh, God, the great and terrible beauty of it. Around us, the motion of the room has slowed to the lethargic tempo of a music box coming unwound. Their voices are deep and every word seems to take a lifetime to say. Mrs. Nightwing sits in her chair, reading David Copperfield aloud to the younger girls. The temptation is too much for me. I touch her arm, ever so slightly. She doesn't stop reading, but slowly, slowly, her free hand lifts and comes to rest on the spot I've touched. She scratches at the place where my hand has been, an irritation like an insect bite she's reacted to and forgotten again. It's extraordinary." I gave this one 4 out of 5 roses.

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