It’s the summer of 1895, and 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is bored and impatient. Tired of her life in Bombay, India, she’s indignant that her mother continually rebuffs her requests to move to London. But Gemma’s teenage angst is quickly forgotten when she has a terrible vision, a frightening experience that sets off an astonishing series of events. In the space of a few shocking moments, her life is altered in ways she never could have imagined and suddenly, her days are far from boring.
After tragedy strikes, Gemma’s family falls apart, and her pompous brother deposits her at Spence Academy, a boarding school near London. Readers who enjoy the archetypal high-school-girl-triumphs-over-her-tormentors storyline will not be disappointed in the characters Bray has created: unfashionable scholarship student Ann; beautiful yet mean-spirited Pippa, and power-hungry Felicity become central to the plot and commit much mischief after lights-out. There is also the sophisticated but wise teacher, the uptight headmistress who just might have something to hide and, for good measure, a compelling-yet-creepy young man who utters cryptic warnings to an increasingly disconcerted yet determinedly curious Gemma.
And yes, Gemma uses her wit and creativity to win the girls over, learning along the way that she has ties to a former Spence student who possessed strange powers, too. As her visions become ever more vivid and strange, it becomes clear that her new talents are from an unearthly realm. She convinces the other girls to join her in learning more about these powers, and together they venture into a world where each discovers her own strengths, longings and weaknesses. As the cover indicates, there is a bit of bodice-ripping to be found in Bray’s book, but for the most part, corsets are loosened rather than torn off. Bray also explores family secrets, personal history and the ways in which knowledge, power and ego interact and affect one another. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a multi-layered, ambitious work that mixes history, magic, romance, humor and mystery, making it a good choice for a wide range of readers.
Linda M. Castellitto writes from Rhode Island.