Something GREAT and terrible

Written by Libba Bray, A Great and Terrible Beauty is the first installment in The New York Times bestselling series, The Gemma Doyle Trilogy, first published in 2003. 

The richly woven Gothic tale follows 16 year-old Gemma Doyle, a girl with an unconventional upbringing in the midst of the Victorian era. Raised by her mother in India, free from the constraints of London society, Gemma’s sixteenth birthday ends in her mother’s death, and exposes a secret that will irrevocably change the course of her life.

 After the tragedy, Gemma is shipped off to London preparatory school Spence Academy to begin her training as a proper English debutante, learning to curtsey, embroider, and hold polite tea conversations in order to prepare for her future role as wife and mother.  

Suffering from vivid and troubling visions concerning her mother’s death, she soon meets and befriends three other girls who also feel trapped by the societal constraints opposed on them. Headstrong Felicity longs for a life not ruled by her family and future husband, while beautiful and romantic Pippa dreams of marrying her true love instead of a wealthy older man chosen for her. 

Ann, Gemma’s roommate, is a scholarship student trained to fulfill a governess position for her wealthy cousin. Orphaned at a young age and mocked by the other girls, she desperately seeks acceptance and a life onstage as a famous actress. 

With the help of her visions and three friends, Gemma learns that she is a powerful priestess, whose magic allows her to open the Realms, a mystical world between worlds. Her power stems from a mysterious sect of witched called the Order, and while at Spence she discovers the history of the magic while changing her own life, and the lives of her friends.

 A Great and Terrible Beauty is a bewitching read, a fast-paced and darkly spun story that maintains a fantastic plot line while still inspiring empathy from the readers.  While Gemma, Felicity, Pippa, and Ann find themselves in situations far outside what is possibly experienced, the draw of the book is the change that takes place amongst the girls, the tests placed on their friendship, and the universal emotions they share. 

Each girl is forced to make difficult, and often nearly impossible choices, each is faced with her biggest demons and her greatest desires, and each experiences and strains against the boundaries placed on her freedoms and comes out stronger for it. 

The novel also does a great job of probing the darker underbelly of Victorian social life and the social mandates that bound women like the corsets they were forced to wear. Bray displays her storytelling prowess by sharing a compelling and mythical narrative that is eagerly absorbed for its fantasy element, but sticks because of its highly relatable human heart.