Archetype: Diverse Protagonists
TW/CW: Murder, attempted rape, beheading/separated limbs.
I deeply, deeply enjoyed The Beautiful by Renée Ahdieh. Or, a lot of it, anyway.
The Beautiful takes place in 1872 New Orleans, where a young former dressmaker named Celine arrives after fleeing Paris. She arrives with several other young women from Europe and they are all to be settled in a convent together until they marry. Celine quickly becomes drawn to a young woman named Odette, who hires Celine to make a dress for a Mardi Gras masquerade and invites her to the Court of Lions, which Odette refers to as a gambling hell for mentalists. Count me in.
In reality, the Court of Lions is a collection of inhuman beings under the purview of Le Comte de Saint Germain. At its center is the Count’s only heir, his nephew Bastien. When Celine and Bastien meet there is an undeniable chemistry between the two, even as Celine realizes that Bastien is dangerous. (To be fair, the first time she meets him he and his friend Arjun are beating a guy up in an alley. I think that it was a bad dude, but it is worth being cautious when your first interaction with a man involves him participating in/watching over the beating of another man.)
But as she tries to build a life in New Orleans, death circles ever-closer to Celine. A young woman is brutally murdered on a dock near the convent on the night of Celine’s arrival in the city. The body of another girl from the convent is found in the Court of Lions. The body of the convent gardener is found in Celine’s own bedroom. And it is all too possible that the Court of Lions and Bastien Saint Germain are responsible.
I was most looking forward to this book because I’ve been ready for vampires to return to YA fantasy for a while. And while this book is about vampires, it’s kinda on the downlow. While Celine recognizes and names the inhuman characteristics of the Court of Lions early on and throughout, full acknowledgement of vampires in the story comes late in the game. This didn’t bother me at all–the establishment of New Orleans as a supernatural space felt much more important than naming the creatures. And New Orleans is magnificent in The Beautiful. Though it stretches across the French Quarter, the novel is so intimate with the city that it feels contained to a small neighborhood.
On the corner opposite the live oak stood an open-air bakery that reminded Celine of her favorite boulangerie on the Boulevard de Montparnasse. The smell of fried dough and slowly melting sugar wafted through the waxy magnolia leaves. Nearby, a set of balcony shutters slammed shut, and a trellis laden with bright pink bougainvillea shook, the blossoms trembling as if in fear. Or perhaps in anticipation.
It should have been beautiful to behold. But the lovely tableau felt tinged with something sinister. As though a pale finger had slipped through a drawn curtain, beckoning her into a dark abyss.
The Beautiful is also home to a marvelous cast of characters, only a few of which I will highlight, starting with Celine. After fleeing Paris in the wake of a violent and traumatic event, Celine arrives in New Orleans shaken and wracked with a guilty conscience.
The question of good and evil residing in the same person is one that haunts Celine. Her actions in Paris led her to realize that anyone is capable of violent actions and they awaken in her the desire to feel in control. Celine is attracted to power and the possibility of living on her own terms, and thus is seduced by the lives of the Court of Lions, even as the secret of her actions makes her wonder if she has a right to a happy life. Celine is no stranger to secrets however, as her White father convinced her it was paramount that no one in Paris know that her mother was East Asian. I know this is very vague, but Celine is also only vaguely aware of her mother’s heritage.
There’s also Odette, an exuberant lesbian soothsayer. Odette is over the top, loud, and dramatic and she takes Celine under her wing almost immediately. If I remember correctly, not much is given in terms of Odette’s background but we do know that she is White, appears to know everything and everyone, and can occasionally be found wearing men’s trousers. A true woman after my own heart.
There is, of course, the mysterious Sébastien Saint Germain. The only surviving heir to the astonishingly wealthy Comte de Saint Germain, Bastien occasionally reads like a teenage crime boss, which I suppose he is, but which I was not particularly enraptured by. What I did love about Bastien were the details into his background. Bastien’s mother was a free woman of color and his father was of Taíno heritage. The Taíno are the indigenous people of the Caribbean. And at the time of first European contact, the Taíno were the principal inhabitants of a number of islands including Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. This is one of the small but gorgeous details that make up The Beautiful.
And then there is Arjun, an Indian sort-of-barrister with the ability to put people to sleep with a mere touch. Arjun is one of my favorites because he does marvelous things such as referring to a White British character as a “loathsome imperialist” and having the following exchange with Celine’s friend from the convent, Pippa, who is also White and British:
“I know the law inside and out, even if I’m not permitted to practice it.”
A quizzical expression passed across Pippa’s features. “I don’t understand.”
“More’s the pity.” Another punishing grin took shape on his face. “My skin is not the right color, Miss Montrose, nor is my parentage. Surely you of all people understand that.”
“Excuse me?” She blinked, consternation clouding her gaze.
“Based on your accent, I’d wager you’re from Yorkshire. A proper English girl, through and through.”
Color flooded Pippa’s cheeks. “Yes, I’m from Yorkshire.”
“Then you’re no doubt well aware that a scraper from East India would never be permitted to work as a barrister in any circle of significance.” Tucking his bowler hat beneath his arm, Arjun stored the coriander cutting inside the breast pocket of his grey frock coat. “That’s by design, in case you didn’t know.” He laughed to himself.
“Not all of us believe in such notions,” Pippa said softly.
“That may be true,” he said, “but all of you definitely benefit from it.”
My entire note on this exchange just said: “How very me of him.” Arjun has my heart and probably my back if I ever get into a fight/legal trouble and that’s the kind of support I look for. I also think this excerpt demonstrates how engaged The Beautiful is with race both in the United States and around the world at the time the novel is set: post American slavery and pre-Jim Crow, the British Empire firmly established. Many characters of color in The Beautiful may be mixed race or passing, or be in positions of power, but they are also aware of the precariousness of their positions, as well as the things just out of reach. It is, quite simply, magnificently done.
Now for the doozy. I am still not sold on the conflict of the love story. Don’t get me wrong, I was and remain wholly in favor of Bastien and Celine! When you have a character named Sébastien (which we all know is one of the best romance hero names) and he is described like this:
The skin above his cravat was bronzed, the muscles in his neck corded. Along his square jawline was the suggestion of stubble, its shadow accentuating the elegant symmetry of his features. It brought to light an aristocratic nose, which contrasted with his thick eyelashes and dark brow… A pirate bedecked in Savile Row.
You want to be invested in that man’s love story.
Bastien and Celine banter well, are both ridiculously attractive, multilingual, protective of the people they care about, and covetous of power. I did not think that they were poorly matched. Bastien is the only person Celine tells about her mixed heritage and the reason she left France. Those are not small intimacies. For the most part, the romance between Bastien and Celine develops evenly throughout the book. Until it doesn’t.
The book has a sudden shift approximately three-fourths of the way through and suddenly, a book about murder, the things that hunt in the darkness of New Orleans’ shadows, and slow-simmering love becomes a book about forbidden love between two people I’m not convinced can’t be together. The threads of why Bastien and Celine shouldn’t be together simply aren’t visible enough for long enough for it to hold any real emotional weight for me.
I wonder if the constant refrain of being explicitly, rather than implicitly, told that Bastien and Celine could not be together affected my attachment to their relationship. Bastien and Celine have almost the exact same conversation at two points in the book:
“Don’t fall in love with me,” she warned again, her words breathless. “You’re not good for me. And I’m not good for you.”
“I agree, on all counts.”
“Most likely, you require a young woman with wealth and pedigree. An established place in society,” Celine continued. “And I require a proper young gentleman.”
I would much rather be shown why two character’s lives/futures are incompatible than told there is a barrier that is never really illustrated. If class was the barrier to their relationship, class as a problem needed to exist in the novel in the moments where Bastien and Celine were not explicitly naming it.
Based off of this supposed barrier, the novel careens wildly into being almost solely focused on their forbidden love. This will work incredibly well if the reader believes that Bastien and Celine really CAN’T be together. If the reader doesn’t, the last quarter of the book is confusingly melodramatic and largely unenjoyable until the novel’s final pages in which the murderer is revealed.
Those final pages hold a number of untied threads that the sequel will most certainly build on and are, thank god, pretty dang enticing. This book is easily spoiled and I would like to avoid doing that as much as possible, as I really enjoyed the mystery aspect of the book as well as being wrong about the murderer in the end. But the identity of the murderer, as revealed in the final pages of the book, sets up a whole host of new conflicts that are absolutely my catnip.
(As an aside, I LOVE being wrong when it comes to mysteries. It is the only time I enjoy being wrong in my whole life. It’s such a pleasure when the surprise the author has worked so hard to build works. I just get so happy for them in that moment.)
Another cliffhanger the novel leaves us with is Michael Grimaldi, the mixed-race head detective assigned to investigate the string of murders. Michael and Bastien grew up together but are now enemies. Over the course of the investigation, however, Michael comes to have a very particular regard for Celine. There’s not quite enough to suggest that a full love triangle will develop, but also:
Perhaps Celine had been wrong to discount his affections as she had in the past. Michael Grimaldi had always felt like a piece of a puzzle that simply wouldn’t fit.
Today? Something felt…different.
I am delightfully concerned that, given the right conditions, I could like Michael very, very much. I can only hope that the next book is able to develop my concern into a full on conundrum.
What does this all mean for me and the next books in the series? I will absolutely pick up the sequel. As I mentioned above, I’m even looking forward to it! Just…not as much as I wanted to. I wanted to be sucked in and consumed. And I was for a while. But in the end it turned into a book where I put it down one day with seventy-five pages left and took two days to go back and finish it. Perhaps not a resounding endorsement, but I do think that The Beautiful still has a lot to recommend it in terms of the quality of the characters, the compelling setting, and the strength of writing at the sentence level. I also think that many readers WILL be enthralled with the emotion of Bastien and Celine and for them the final sections of the book will be as thrilling as they were surely meant to be. Think that might be you? Go out and get yourself some Victorian era New Orleans vampires.