It’s not that I object to reading about schoolgirl bitchery, though it’s not exactly my preferred genre. Dumb schoolgirl bitchery, on the other hand…
I wanted to like this book. And, when I started, it had every promise of being likable. The setting of India was interesting, and the author took a risk in making her character a bit more historically accurate than most (at first). You see, Gemma Doyle is a bratty sixteen-year-old who hates living in India and makes no bones about it. I actually liked that detail because in historical fiction about Britain, India is usually presented as this far off exotic land tasting of spice and freedom–not an ordinary place with ordinary people. A sixteen-year-old British girl wanting to party in London seems pretty natural to me, regardless of how low she descends in reaching her objective.
But then…problems arise. Specifically when Gemma’s wishes come true and she gets shipped off to the Gothic boarding school of her dreams (or her nightmares), and everything begins to fall apart. For Gemma and for me.
I just couldn’t bring myself to approve of her friends. Lovely, cruel Felicity, who tries to ruin the lives and prospects of poor schoolgirls. Depressingly boring Pippa, who tags along. Plain, furtive Ann, whom I desperately wanted to love, but couldn’t, because she ended up just as cowardly as the rest.
And Gemma. Oh, Gemma. Stupid, stupid Gemma. She has all the wits of an antisocial twelve year old, and I would know, having been one. Exhibit A: Right after Felicity tries to frame Ann for a theft and Gemma thwarts the plan, Gemma accepts a midnight dare from the very person she pissed off. And gets promptly backstabbed. I–how could she not see that coming?
If Gemma had, say, expertly played Felicity and Pippa in a bid to establish popularity, that would be one thing. But she actually becomes friends with them and I just couldn’t see why.
And as if that’s not bad enough, we are gifted with the girls’ blatant racism against gypsies, even while we are expected to sympathize with their various problems and How Hard It Is Being a Girl in Victorian England TM. I don’t mind a discussion of women’s rights in historical novels, as long as it feels organic to the story, and it most definitely wasn’t here. No, instead, we got the most dreaded sort of book in YA–the issue novel. Oh, many were the hours I spent looking for something to read in the library, and I did not discriminate. I read anything that looked remotely interesting, so I ended up with a ton of high school fluff full of divorces, a few drugs, absent parents, and hopeful Nice Guys waiting in the wings for that inevitable time when the heroine realizes the error of her sinful ways. The issue novel, ladies and gentlemen.
Anyway, that is what A Great and Terrible Beauty reads like, if modern teenage girl problems were transplanted into the nineteenth century, and it does not read well. Bad fathers, shady friendships, mother-daughter problems, and they all feel out of place because of the way they’re handled.
Am I making sense? This is much rantier than usual, I know, but this book had potential, dammit, and…I’m disappointed, and it hurts.