Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray

A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray. New York: Delacorte Press, 2003. ISBN-10: 0385730284; ISBN-13: 978-0385730280. 403 p.

Plot Summary
Gemma Doyle has been sent to the Spence Academy in London after her mother's mysterious death near their home in India. Gemma has a hard time getting to know the other girls at Spence, but she isn't completely along--she's been followed from India by a mysterious young man who warns her to close her mind to the visions she has seen since her 16th birthday. As she becomes more aware of her powers, she becomes entangled with both the popular girls at school and a shadowy group called the Order. Does her destiny with the Order's magical world?

Critical Evaluation
It's clear that Bray conducted fairly extensive research about life in Victorian England. Girls during this era were groomed to become rich men's wives, and their opinions generally weren't valued by society at large. Bray's large female cast reflects different attitudes and perspectives on Victorian female roles, and even if this were solely a historical novel it would be a great read. The fantasy element only improves the book by providing an avenue to explore gender roles in even more detail as well as advancing the story. The setting, characters, and background behind the novel make it very enjoyable.

Reader’s Annotation
Gemma Doyle was sent to the Spence Academy after the tragic death of her mother. As she makes her new home in Victorian England, she starts having visions of another world.

Author Information
Libba Bray grew up in Texas, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. When she was 18, she was in a bad car accident and had 13 surgeries in 6 years to rebuild her face (she has an artificial left eye because of it). She says her three worst habits are "overeating, self-doubt, and the frequent use of the "f" word" and she hates donuts. When she doesn't write, she says she feels depressed and cranky and itchy, so she writes so everyone around her is happy that she's stopped complaining (source). Her most recent book was Going Bovine, which won the 2010 Printz Award. A complete biography can be found on her website at http://www.libbabray.com/LBAutobiography.html.

While A Great and Terrible Beauty is sometimes categorized as chick lit, Bray says she hates the term because it's demeaning. "By and large, the writing of men is not categorized and compartmentalized in this way beyond specific publishing genres, i.e., mystery, horror, science fiction. I have the same problem when movies are referred to as chick flicks. It's dismissive; it says that the themes that often show up in women's novels and films and the perspective of women artists are somehow less than....Now, that said, can we please, please move away from this recent spate of navel-gazing, whining, shopping-obsessed superficial novels in which guys are just accessories like the right shoes, and the deepest feelings encountered are a sort of self-absorbed sulkiness on the part of the heroine? Puh-leeeze" (source).  Her strong feminism and individualism is apparent in her work.

Gothic fantasy, historical fiction

Curriculum Ties
History: gender roles in Victorian England.

Booktalking Ideas
Evoke the setting by using the passage and description of the time Gemma first sees Spence.

Reading Level/Interest Age
Grades 9-12.

Challenge Issues
Occult/magic issues.

Challenge Defense
Invite the challenger to read the book before making a value judgement.

I included this book because it was named a 2004 Best Book for Young Adults by YALSA. I also saw it at Target as I was browsing and it looked interesting.


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