Release Date: September 4, 2012
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Macmillan)
Age Group: Young Adult
Source: ARC received from publisher
Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.
Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.
Tell Me More: The quality that has always drawn me into any sort of fantastical, supernatural story is the tenuous balance between life and death. Creatures such as vampires, werewolves, mermaids–they are Other, and yet their existence and the human belief in them reflect on humanity itself. They represent, among other things, what we like to think of as our baser instincts and their coiled violence is both the most appealing and revolting thing about them. In Monstrous Beauty, Elizabeth Fama draws on the connection between human nature and the otherworldly creatures that fascinate us to write a story of grief and hope in the midst of death.
Fama’s prose may not be the familiar, easy first-person narrative that YA readers are used to, but it is the kind of writing that rewards patience and subsequent rereadings. In the last six months, I have reread Monstrous Beauty twice and each time, I find myself surprised by the depth of the sentences. The best stories have an unmistakable melody about them, one that flows naturally between the words, and this story absolutely achieves that. The third-person POV also provides distance, which helps to keep the reader from being swayed one way or the other between the characters. Alternating chapters keep the reader on their toes, and the pacing worked with the mood of the story to keep it interesting. Objectivity is important, because the story never goes where you think it will, and it never loses that element of surprise.
Likewise, the characters aren’t flashy, but they are rich in nuances. I never knew if I was making a good decision to side with Syrenka, appropriately enough–after all, she is a dangerous mermaid. You will feel afraid of her, and I loved that I couldn’t predict what she would do next. I never knew if Ezra was truly who he said he was, and that intrigued me far more than if he had been the usual charming YA hero. The only character I thought might have been “safe” was Hester, and even then, it was only because she and I were both trying to find answers to our questions. The relationships never dive into insta-love territory, which was a welcome change. Monstrous Beauty makes you think while you read, which may not make it a popular book, but certainly an excellent one.
Part of that excellence stems from the themes. This is not a paranormal story so much as a tale based solidly in history and family. Hester’s job in a historical reenactment village ties her to both the community and her own family history. She isn’t a lost soul looking for where she belongs, and there is a whole host of people that help ground her in the town. The ambiance is brilliantly set with little insights into the history and character of Hester’s home, and it shifts the focus from mermaids to humanity. There is a warmth to the story that comforts the reader during the horrifying revelations that later occur, and I loved that Fama was willing to take a chance writing this kind of story.
Love-as-sacrifice also comes into play, and while I won’t be talking about this particular theme as much for fear of spoiling it, suffice to say that the way Hester grows into that idea is absolutely stunning. Because there is a real growth, a change that comes over the characters as they move through the story, and I loved being able to reread the book and pinpoint where that growth began. The foreshadowing is present, but never overt, and it gives readers a puzzle to unlock. As the reader is led towards the shocking climax, Fama never lets the story threads fall to pieces, and holding such a tightly woven plot together is a challenge. Hester’s fear of falling in love never feels contrived to fit the story, and the reasons behind that fear are revealed in a masterfully written denouement which may bring tears to readers’ eyes.
The Final Say: Elizabeth Fama achieves an outstanding feat in Monstrous Beauty, with characters that never feel worn in and a plot that will surprise and startle even the most worldly readers.
Elizabeth Fama is the author of Monstrous Beauty (FSG 2012), and Overboard (Cricket Books 2002), an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.
Check out my interview with Elizabeth for Mermaid Month 2011!
I’m giving away a finished copy of Monstrous Beauty for readers in the U.S. or Canada, thanks to MacKids Books! Just comment below with your favourite historical novel. You get +1 entry for sharing this post or any other Monstrous Beauty blog tour post (link them in your comment!).