This book has been on my TBR pile for quite some time, but I never seemed to find the right time to get around to it: after greatly enjoying Certain Dark Things, I was more than curious to see how the author dealt with a totally different genre, but at the same time I was also a little wary about the romance angle in this story, since it’s not one of my favorite themes. So it was with great surprise that I found myself enjoying The Beautiful Ones even beyond my expectations.
The novel’s core focuses on Nina Beaulieu, a young woman from the country who came to live in the big, fashionable city of Loisail for the Season – the opportunity for all unmarried women to catch a suitable husband. A guest in the home of her cousin Gaetan, she’s chaperoned by Gaetan’s wife Valerie, one of the city’s trend-setters and a woman with little patience toward her charge: Nina has little interest for the conventions of Loisail’s polite society, causing no end of embarrassment to her chaperone, and what’s worse she possesses some raw telekinetic talents that often manifest themselves in untimely circumstances, thus dramatically diminishing her chances to make a good match.
Valerie’s irritation comes from deeper roots than that, however: she married wealthy Gaetan at the urging of her impoverished family, giving up her dreams of a future with penniless telekinetic performer Hector Auvray. While she enjoys the status the marriage conferred her, she buried those old dreams under a thick cover of strict adherence to society’s rules, and Nina’s lack of interest in them grates on her nerves just as much as the open affection Gaetan displays for his young cousin and the rest of her family. The situation becomes even more complicated with the arrival of Hector Auvray in Loisail: he’s now a successful artist, and he’s come back to try and win Valerie away from her marriage, because his feelings have not changed in the decade he’s been away.
The three of them become entangled in a complicated, dangerous and heart-wrenching game that shows their true personalities – and more often than not it’s far from an inspiring spectacle: Hector starts courting Nina as a way to get close to Valerie; Nina finds herself in the throes of her first love and throws what little caution she possesses to the four winds; and Valerie comes to the fore as the proverbial wicked witch we all love to hate. Described this way, the story might look like a classical love triangle, fraught with all the shades of emotional turmoil you might imagine – and it is that, too – something that usually would have me running screaming for the hills, but under the skillful handling of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, this becomes a compelling story, a study of characters under the most stressful situations, and in this it finds its true strength and the reason it’s such a fascinating read.
Nina appears as an innocent – and up to a point she is – but there is much more under that surface layer, and that’s why it’s easy to root for her, even when she behaves like a moon-struck idiot and I want to shake her so hard that her bones rattle: unlike other girls of her age, the Beautiful Ones moving through Loisail’s whirlwind of social occasions, she is curious about the world, she cultivates many interests that keep her mind alive beyond the superficial needs of parties and balls. Nina stands out not so much because her manners might not be as refined as Valerie wishes, nor because of her telekinetic powers, but because she never truly embraces the shallow tenets of the city’s society: Loisail (and Valerie) despise her because for all her naiveté she feels more authentic than the rest of them.
They might have been more accepting if, perhaps, she’d shown herself meek and solicitous […] They saw a determined spark [,,,] that they classified as insolence, a lack of artifice that struck them as boorish, a capacity to remain unimpressed […]
That inner strength, that capacity to lift herself by the bootstraps, is what keeps her from shattering when her world comes crashing down around her, destroying her youthful fantasies, and that’s the moment she grows into a stronger, self-determined woman:
They had likely expected her to die of heartbreak, to wither and grow gray, but Nina thought she would not give them the satisfaction. Not to the silly folk who made jokes about her, nor to Valerie […]
Valerie, though being the undisputed villain of the story – and she makes no effort to disavow the readers of this notion – is ultimately a creature to be pitied, up to a certain point: used as a bargaining chip by her family, she submits to their needs negating her own wishes, and becomes so enmeshed with the rules she was forced to obey that she is unable to see beyond them, her hate for Nina stemming from the awareness that the younger woman does not care for those same rules and is ready to scorn them for love – as she was unable, or unwilling, to do. Whatever pity I might have harbored for Valerie, though, quickly evaporates in the face of her decision to bring others to the same depths of despair she wallows in, out of pure spite – if she is unable to have something, no one should as well…
As for Hector, he’s as far from a noble figure as one might conceive: obsessed with Valerie to the point he can’t see neither of them is the same person as they were ten years before, he concocts a plan to get close to her, not realizing until it’s too late that he’s fallen victim to his own machinations – even once he finally opens his eyes and tries to make amends, he comes across as something of a weakling, and indeed I see him as the less substantial personality of them all.
Re-reading my notes about this novel, I realized that I’ve been ensnared by a story that contains too many of the elements I actively avoid in my reading material, and I wondered why: there was too little fantasy here and too much romance – how could I be so enthralled by The Beautiful Ones? The only answer I can find is that Silvia Moreno-Garcia is such a skilled writer that she can mesmerize me with her tales even agains my usual dislikes. And that’s the mark of an author to keep on my radar, no matter what…