Book Review

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Beautiful Ones is a book that includes many genres, including fantasy, romance, manners, and just a little bit of Gothic. I enjoyed it more as a soap opera than a romance, but your mileage will vary depending on your interpretation of the characters.

The setting is an alternate world in which some people have telekinetic powers. It takes place during the Belle Époque (anywhere between 1871-1914). Loisail is the Big City where the upper classes enjoy the Grand Season. There’s nothing mystical about Loisail – the only fantasy element in the book is the telekinesis. During the summer, people go to their country estates where the weather is cooler and manners a bit looser.

Once upon a time, a performer, Hector, fell madly in love with an upper-class girl, Valérie. He went across the sea to earn his fortune and she promised to wait for him. However, her family, which had status but no money, pressured Valérie to marry a rich man, Gaetan. Ten years later, Valérie is the undisputed queen of the Season. She’s rich, she’s beautiful, and she’s great at manipulating people. She finds her husband to be terribly boring and avoids him as much as she can. She’s what Heather Chandler (from Heathers, of course) would have grown up to be if she lived in the Belle Époque and stayed away from drain cleaner.

Meanwhile, Hector became a famous performer whose money and celebrity have earned him a place among the elite. Now that he has made it big, he shows up to work out his broken heart issues. He figures he will see Valérie and he will automatically know what his next move is. And behold – into his life walks Antonina, Valérie’s younger country cousin! Hector, who is just the worst, courts Antonina (Nina, for short) to make Valérie jealous. Valérie, who is also just the worst, is a hell-bitch to Nina, who just wants to study beetles and wear comfortable shoes, but who gradually falls in love with Hector.

So eventually shit goes down, and there’s a time jump to the next Season, and Hector The Absolute Worst decides that actually he really does love Nina. Nina is all “Bitch, please,” but Hector The Absolute Worst wins her over. Valérie The Other Absolute Worst plots to ruin Nina’s life because she’s jealous that Nina has choices that Valérie never had. Valérie’s plot involves getting Nina to marry one of Hector’s friends, Luc. So by the climax of the book we have, counting Gaetan, a love pentacle, only some of the people aren’t sure whether they love each other, hate each other, or just want to get rich.

I can definitely say this novel works as a Gothic novel of manners. I’m using “Gothic” because it feels Gothic to me with all the secretive plotting and dramatic conversations and breaking of expensive items. In addition, I can’t think of people wooing their relatives without thinking, “Gothic alert.” I kept expecting one of those kids from Flowers in the Attic to show up, or the entire cast of Crimson Peak. Of course, historically it hasn’t been unusual to marry a cousin, but the relationship is played up in the book to highlight how tangled these people’s social and romantic lives are. Other than that, it’s not very Gothic and nor is it very fantastical. The telekinesis mostly comes into play to create a common bond between Nina and Hector the Absolute Worst. The society scheming was top notch.

Whether or not this will work for you as a romance novel depends on:

  1. Whether you feel that Hector actually changes enough during the time jump for us to root for him and Nina.
  2. Whether you are OK with a romance love triangle in which only two of the three people get happy endings.

I liked Nina, who over the course of the story goes from being a naïve girl to a mature woman. Even before Hector shows up, Valérie hates Nina because it is Valérie’s job, as an older and highly placed relative, to turn Nina into a young lady who can find a suitable husband during the Season. Nina can’t or won’t learn social graces, which drives Valérie right up the wall. The (slightly) older Nina has more poise and more depth as a character but retains her love for the country, for beetles, and for communicating directly instead of in code. Her forthrightness cuts beautifully through the coded insinuations of everyone else.

Whatever genre you call it, the story is compelling. I read it with the same rabid avidity with which I eat a bag of chips. Did I mention the clothes? So many clothes, plus descriptions of beautiful rooms and interesting backstage areas, and so forth. When it comes to setting and description, this book is wonderful.

This book did not work for me, personally, as a romance, because my cold heart does not accept the reformed Hector. However, it absolutely worked for me as a kind of historical soap opera with fantasy elements. Grading it on those terms, I give it a B+.

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The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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  1. 1
    Lora says:
    +2

    I was interested to read what this was about because every time I see the cover it reminds me of Beautiful Darkness, the YA Southern Gothic. I guess it’s the font and the word ‘beautiful’.

  2. 2
    GraceElizabeth says:
    +2

    This really did not work for me, but I mostly agree with this review (and I’m kind of surprised to see it’s a B+ since it sounds more negative). On the surface it has all my catnip: romance, fantasy elements, quasi-Victorian Gothic setting, pretty prose. I found Nina passive and too childlike for the romance throughout; initially I thought Valérie was more interesting, but she quickly turns into a soap opera style villainess. Hector is, as you say, The Worst and the creepiness of his obsession with Valérie was not underlined enough IMO. I don’t mind a book populated with awful characters but this seemed to want it both ways, and the fantasy elements are just window dressing. The prose was pretty and the imagery’s lovely, but I wouldn’t have compared it to the wonderful crazysauce that is Crimson Peak.

  3. 3
    Jenna Friebel says:
    +9

    I looooooved this book. It was one of my favs last year.

  4. 4
    Jamie says:
    +3

    The romance did work for me, and I was overall delighted by every aspect of the book. I enjoyed both Nina’s and Hector’s character growth and thought their actions and motivations made sense. And Valérie was a great villain–the fact that she had a valid motivation beneath all of the horribleness doesn’t excuse her actions toward Nina, but it did make her compelling.

  5. 5
    Jenna Bird says:
    +6

    I can see how this book ended up in a pile of “romance” novels, but I felt it was VERY much not a “romance” of the sort we tend to think of, especially through SBTB. Instead I saw it much more as a “regency romance” novel (of the sort we saw come up in the 1960s – ) and a bit of a Regency novel (of the sort Jane Austen & peers produced). It’s such an interesting thing to see this examined through the more contemporary Romance lens, and easy to see how it would fail in that way.

    Hector was, indeed, The Worst.

    I think the only thing I was confused about here was how it was Gothic — but I’m definitely informed by that being my particular field of interest in a broad sense. The breaking of dishes and wooing of relatives… isn’t one of those traditional markers, in my experience. Though I can see where those lines cross when it comes to romance novels, even if it is more a matter of the label of ‘gothic’ being thrown around loosely.

    A lot of what’s said here is on point as far as what was going on and that Moreno-Garcia’s writing is just beautiful (I have read all of her currently published novels, which are different genres–her writing remains solid). Thanks for the thoughtful review of it! I wish more people were talking about it.

  6. 6
    +8

    I love love loved this book, and see it as what would happen if Balzac wrote a fantastical story with a happy ending. The characters absolutely worked for me, and I found it deeply romantic (in the Literachah sense of the term) and very satisfying (on an emotional level). I listened to it as an audiobook, but also bought a print copy so I can have it to linger over, as I think there’s some exquisite prose that I didn’t quite have time to appreciate on the first pass. As an aside, this is the first of the author’s books that has truly clicked with me in this way, and I am now eagerly anticipating her next one.

    I made heart-eyes-emoji almost the entire time I was listening to it. <3

  7. 7
    Meg D. says:
    +8

    I just want to say thanks for a review that made me snort-laugh several times, which is totally what I needed this morning.

  8. 8
    BellaInAus says:
    +5

    I’m not terribly interested in reading this book, but I DO want to watch Crimson Peak again.

  9. 9
    talis says:
    +2

    This is a beautiful book, like an Edith Wharton novel or Dangerous Liaisons.

  10. 10
    Cristie says:
    +1

    I don’t know about the Gothic novel of manners thing, but this sounds like the crazy over the top Mexican telenovelas I watched as a kid. Except with telekinesis.

  11. 11
    Ben says:
    +3

    I read this book last fall, and I liked it a fair amount.

    There are some parts that I was not quite sure how I felt about. E.g., some of Hector’s behavior was pretty awful in ways that seem not unrealistic but were definitely difficult to stomach from a 2017 perspective. But, I did see chamge in his character, so to some extent that bothered me less than it might have. I’m also not quite sure how I feel about some things about Valérie and her fate.

    But these are small hesitations; the book on the whole works, and works well. Particularly, what works (besides the setting) are the plot and the character development, and how the two go together. I don’t see soap opera with this book so much, if at all. Rather, it has a lot in common with, as Jenna said above, Austen. Most of the characters are trapped and navigate within those traps as best they can. Hector is less trapped, and Nina is even less trapped because she chooses, like an Austen protagonist, to not follow the path of least resistance but to follow her heart, even if it is more difficult. Now, there are certainly places where Nina goes far beyond what any Austen protagonist would do, and she is more about breaking rules than creatively using them, but that seemed like a sort of intentional updating of the concept than anything else, and I liked both how she tried to work within the system and how she sometimes did not. The result is a book is one of the most Austen-y things I’ve read maybe ever except for the real thing, but one that also avoided many of the pitfalls of Austen pastiches.

    Perhaps I’m leaning too heavily on this interpretation of the book as an updated take on Austen (there’s a little bit of Great Expectations in there also, and maybe some Prestige), but that’s certainly the way it struck me at the time. And I think if you like those sorts of books, there’s a decent chance you’ll like this one.

    As to whether it works as a romance outside of a Regency context, personally, I would think it does, because the struggles seem – on the balance – both real and complex, and the main characters relatable (if somewhat extreme in their idiosyncrasies). But for me it’s difficult to separate from that context, so I may not be the best judge. Either way though, totally worth reading as a book, even if it doesn’t work as a romance for you.

  12. 12
    Kikis says:
    +1

    This is totally a gaslight fantasy, not Gothic. And has such a cute cover.

  13. 13
    Redcrow says:
    +3

    Cristie – “telenovela” sounds about right. Can’t talk about the modern stuff, but so-called “heroes” in classic series frequently tended to be The Worst (Luis Alberto, I will hate you forever). But why “(e)xcept with telekinesis”? Several telenovelas I watched had fantastic elements – reincarnation, clones (fine, that one was Brasilian, not Mexican, and I didn’t really watch it, but remember it being pretty popular)…

  14. 14
    Cristie says:
    +2

    @ Redcrow. You’re right! I forgot about the awesomeness that was El Extrano Retorno de Diana Salazar & El Clon! And you’re also right about all the heroes being complete shits.

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