Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Beautiful Ones, Innsmouth Free Press, 2018.
The SCKA shortlist keeps on taking me out of my comfort zone and The Beautiful Ones, a fantasy novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a writer I've been wanting to read for a long time, is another story which shouldn't work for me at all but actually does.
Hector Auvray has a telekinesis talent. He performs and has amassed a fortune over the years. When he arrives in Loisail, he hopes to reconnect with Valérie, a woman who broke his heart ten years ago. To get closer to her, he will court her young cousin, Nina Beaulieu, a young woman who is wealthy, who comes from a good family, who also has a telekinesis talent but who is completely at odds with the respectable society in Loisail.
The main plot of the novel is a romance (... I said it took me out of my comfort zone!) and it will remind of Jane Austen's narratives in that wedding, but in the right society, is paramount in women's lives. But where Moreno-Garcia differs quite radically from Austen is in the social discourse.
The Beautiful Ones are the right persons in Loisail society: those who come from a long line, with wealth and looks. In that society, both Hector and Nina are outsiders: he's a nobody who made his name and his fortune; she doesn't give a care about clothes and gossip, despite her wealth and her good connections. On the other hand, Valérie is a perfect fit in it.
What I found interesting was that society isn't a traditional obstacle of the romance narrative, it suffuses the romance entirely: it is because of it Valérie had to wed a decade ago, it is because of it that Hector is shunned. The characters are part of this society, whether they want it or not, and it creates who they are, how they react, what they do.
The romance leads to a coming of age novel. And, all said and done, whatever the social discourse, a romance and a coming of age novel? I should be hating that.
That would be without taking into account the characters and the remarkable writing.
Hector was the character that I enjoyed the least, though he will very much appeal to some readers. There's broodiness, coldness, heartbreak in him because of Valérie. The coming of age isn't only the obvious one for the younger character.
Nina was another interesting main character. She had appealing traits, a sunny personality, a thirst for science rather than social conventions. But, once again, I think this is a character that will appeal to some readers more than she did to me, even though I really enjoyed her.
No, to me, the star of this novel, is Valérie Beaulieu. Moreno-Garcia did a tremendous job in writing her, and I only regret that, in the ending, she veers slightly into something less subtle, yet entirely in character. Valérie not only reveals the sexism and venality of this society, she also embraces it. In a sense, she isn't a complex character, but it's how Moreno-Garcia lays bare Valérie's soul that you can't help but be fascinated by her. In more than one aspect, Valérie reminded of Madame de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos.
The fantasy aspect though is quite slim. It provides a backdrop and a useful twist. It is in keeping with the theme of outsiders, because Moreno-Garcia wrote admirably her themes. But it is as subtle as in The Prestige by Priest, or in Passing Strange by Ellen Klages.
The Beautiful Ones made me realise something: I must read more of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's writing because she writes splendidly and she creates remarkable characters. The Beautiful Ones is more than a romance, it's a cold study of wealthy societies and their impact on the people who belong to them.
The writer's website.