‘A Great and Terrible Beauty’… and what women want…

When a book is so good, there is not the need to write reams about its accomplishment; a review could never recreate the beauty of a wonderful read, it must only be read itself.

I was offered this book, A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray, as a ‘you must read this, it’s great… honest’ recommendation from a friend. I don’t think we should ever turn down a recommendation, especially from a close friend you trust and love. If they loved it, then hell, it’s likely you will too!

A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray
A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

Libba Bray offers us the story of Gemma Doyle, who, in the late 1800s, moves to a finishing school in London from Colonial India where she saw her mother murdered. The story then comes to present to us both wonderfully heartfelt as well as wildly imaginative scenes as Gemma eventually settles into her school, locks her self together with three spirited and individual girls, and discovers a bounty of magical secrets that are at tips of her fingers.

Bray successfully melts the magical together with the mundane; the hard lessons at Spence, the snide girls, the undesirable marriage matches, the dance classes, and, of course, there is the odd boy or two who manages to pop up in this very proper all-girls boarding school. It is the fusion of these two aspects that made the read so enjoyable. It did not challenge me to stretch my imagination into believing something that could never seem possible, but instead, let the girls’ experiences wash over me and sink into me.

I will say nothing more about the book; the plot, the well timed surprises, they are all to be discovered through reading. But what I did particularly like about the novel was its portrayal of the four central girls and how they, really, tap into some pretty essential parts of any girl, or woman’s, character. They bring light to our most desperate desires, ones which we so often long for but would not admit to it, particularly in our caged off modern age.

The unrelenting search for love– one character is ever in search of love, and are not we all? Perhaps we don’t admit it, it might be like stripping back our exterior to reveal a vulnerable beating heart. But I know I am. The story reveals to us this weakness for love over logic.

The search for power– in its form in the book, this seems a particularly feminine urge; to find power and strength as a woman above what society may believe is right, or even achievable. The novel is set way back in 1895, so granted, times have changed, but we women aren’t equal yet, so its longing for feminine power and individuality still hits home.

The search for beauty– many woman are guilty of being far too concerned about their appearances, call it self-conscious, call it vain, I don’t care which. I know I am guilty of it, but we build ourselves into moulds of what we believe we should look like, thinking that if we let the façade fall, then so too will our prospects. Life in 1895 presents us with a harsher view of the life we have today; take yourself out for a night in London without your usual cute dress and your make-up, see the difference! So much is based around beauty, or perceived beauty, (people are willing to have their jaws broken and replaced just for that supposed idea of beauty). What we must all believe, including our lovely fictional Ann, is that beauty is only skin deep and will not last as long as an inspiring mind or a charming sense of humour.

A Great and Terrible Beauty quietly taps into the insecurities of many woman whilst giving us a brilliant and wildly imaginative story. It is a fast paced read, and wonderfully easy to put down once your tube journey ends, then pick up again later in bed. We all like to escape into a magical tale sometimes, surely!


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