Back to a little light reading before summers is gone entirely. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is the first in the Gemma Doyle YA series. We begin in Bombay at the end of the 19th Century with Gemma sulking about not going to London. It’s her 16th birthday and she wants desperately to live there, but her mother refuses to go back.
In an instant everything changes in Gemma’s world. Circumstances drive her to London afterall where she’s to attend a finishing school known for turning girls into good wives. The school is in the heart of gypsy country. Visions begin to bring Gemma to her knees and it’s hard to know what’s real and imagined. She knows two things: she’s being followed by a handsome Indian fellow named Kartik and her new school is filled with snooty rich girl cliques up to their old tricks.
Gemma’s roommate Ann is a scholarship student training to be a governess for her aunt. Like Gemma, she sticks out like a sore thumb with a runny nose and a bad habit of cutting herself. Unlike Gemma, she doesn’t defend herself when the popular beauties strike her down. Felicity and Pippa lead the charge, but for all of their wealth and beauty they’re just as lost as Ann and Gemma.
The girls at The Spence Academy for Ladies are at a precious time in their lives when they get to have a little fun before giving up their individuality and spirit to marry a dullard, per Victorian conventions. When Gemma finds an old diary of a former student who writes of magical realms and many of the same things she sees in her visions, her need to escape finds a vehicle. Ann, Felicity and Pippa join together in an unlikely pairing. By night they sneak off to the caves to read the diary filled with legends and mystery.
As the girls seek and find the excitement they’ve yearned for they drift further away from their pre-paved paths. In the real world they don’t see a future with many choices. In other worlds, anything they dream can be theirs. And they have enough dreams to keep them there forever.
One night after returning to their school, Gemma can’t help but think:
In a world beyond this one…the uncertainty of our futures is nothing more than the fog of breath on a windowpane.
Magic is their way out. Gemma’s ability to cross over is a great power that leaves her with more to contend with than she feels capable of handling. One ancient symbol in the story is particularly telling for the characters, and a good line for young readers to take away. It translates to:
I change the world; the world changes me.
The story has a tight plot with fantastic young female characters who want more out of life than marriage. It’s about much more than the classic story type of discovering a portal to a magical world. When the girl is the portal, an author like Bray gets to have all kinds of fun. The ending felt a bit rushed to me, but that’s probably because I wasn’t ready to part.
A little side note to this one: My sister gave me an odd look every time I mentioned this book. It was only last night when she saw the cover herself that she said, “Oh, “beauty”.” And looked a little too relieved for proving she can pronounce a word I’ve known since kindergarten. The she confessed she thought I was reading a book entitled A Great and Terrible Booty.