Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Title: The Beautiful Ones
Another of recently re-published novels, with a new (very sumptuous and eye-catching) cover, The Beautiful Ones has been my first unsolicited NetGalley book – hurray! 😊 I’ve received more titles since then (and I’m still struggling with saying no), but that old-new Moreno-Garcia’s novel definitely caught my eye. Having read and enjoyed Mexican Gothic, I expected The Beautiful Ones to be similarly dark and unsettling. The blurb promised secret bitter truths, magic and telekinesis, so I envisioned a fin de siècle vampire story, somewhere along the lines of Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (no, I haven’t read that one, I’ve only watched the movie 😉). Alas, I should’ve listened to the reviewers who claim that no two Moreno-Garcia’s novels are alike – because this one turned out to be a very straightforward historical romance, or novel of manners, with a slight fantasy twist. To be honest, I felt that the fantasy elements were mostly decorative, and I had a distinct impression that they were there for a single purpose only – for one scene at the very end.
Let’s be clear: I don’t read romances. Not because I’d never touch them with a ten-foot pole (though I’m getting there) but because I have already read a few, mostly historical ones, and my observations to date indicate that 1) they are generally following a very simple formula; and 2) I just don’t like them. I don’t find myself interested or even slightly invested in the daring adventures of hearts, in the usually contrived obstacles between star-crossed lovers, and in the dramatic resolutions. No, not even Austen (gasp!).
Imagine my conundrum with The Beautiful Ones, then – which is as simplistic in terms of cast and as baroque in terms of plot convolutions as it can get away with. The plot especially seems like something taken straight from numerous Latin American soap operas, with multigenerational families, secrets from the past, and beautiful, cold women. I was close to DNFing this one despite the evocative, trademark Moreno-Garcia’s prose, because veritably all characters seemed to be ready-made by the same romance-churning machines: walking stereotypes engaged in predetermined actions. Charming, sure, but not even considering not toeing the line of romance conformity. And yet, I’m glad I persevered and finished this book, because even if it didn’t change my opinion of romances as a literary genre, I was still pleasantly surprised by the feminist twists on the age-old patterns.
The Beautiful Ones is set in a belle epoque-inspired reimagined France or maybe French/Portugal colonies in South America, if the brightly coloured beetles playing an important part over the course of the novel can be any indication. There are mansions and balls, Grand Seasons, opulent dresses, intrigues and hunts for marriage prospects. Predictably, etiquette and social conformity are the key elements of making and managing one’s standing in the society’s high circles, the titular Beautiful Ones. Among the socialites, gossip is the ultimate weapon, and scandal can rob of status even the most well-established persons.
There is a trio of main protagonists: Hector Auvray, a famous entertainer with telekinetic powers; his old flame, Valérie Beaulieu, an exceedingly beautiful and ruthless aristocrat; and Antonina Beaulieu, the young, awkward and much beloved cousin of Valérie’s rich husband Gaetan. Hector is a man torn between the old and the new, still hung up on his past love and their teenage promises, and yet enticed by the naïve freshness of Nina’s open heart and her budding telekinetic powers. Oh, I bet you can already predict at least a half of the plot, if not more. Misunderstanding, betrayals, assumptions, broken hearts… Everything’s there, with vengeance. It seems as if Moreno-Garcia decided to write the most romancy of romance novels, going as far as a pistol duel on a grey, forlorn morn. It’s cheesy to the extreme, no doubt about it, and Moreno-Garcia seems to relish the cheesiness, to wallow in it with gleeful abandon, paying heartfelt tribute to Austen and the sisters Brontë, and French 19th century historical novels (as I don’t read many romances, the closest that I can compare it to is Théophile Gautier’s Captain Fracasse, in which a romance of a slightly older, embittered noble man with a young, honest and naïve woman also plays an important, character-shaping role).
And because of that wilful abandon The Beautiful Ones turned out to be quite enjoyable after all. All the winks and nods to classics, not only in plot construction but even in the choice of tells and metaphors (pearls, white roses and tulips, hair up or down, blondes vs brunettes, etc.) are accompanied by the slightly subversive message of female agency, very much in play even in the world apparently ruled by males. Of course, The Beautiful Ones doesn’t paint either sex as particularly bright, and it conforms to another old adage, that while the man is the head of the family, it’s the woman who is the neck that turns the head. Even the male look is directed and managed by women who dictate the styles in vogue, who build their own prison of norms and rules, destroying one another with pointed words and well-placed whispers. Still, while nothing new or eye-opening, The Beautiful Ones is done in style, because style is what Moreno-Garcia has in spades. Just look at that cover! 😉
All in all, if you’re prepared for what you’re getting – i.e. a straightforward, languidly moving romance in a historical/fantastical setting, you may be quite pleasantly surprised. For me, it was an enjoyable experience which nevertheless won’t change my views on romance: this one time was enough for the foreseeable future 😉. That said, I will certainly read more by Moreno-Garcia; she has a wonderful way with words and an enviable ability to create evocative, vivid imagery.
I have received a copy of this book from the publisher Tor/Forge/Quercus Books & Jo Fletcher Books through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.