This is part of a series concerned with young adult books with LGBT themes, because I read a lot of such books and want to share them with you.
I am tempted to say to you that I love this book more than I can say, but then there would be no need for a book review. Let me start by telling you how I came to read it.
The first novel of Libba Bray’s that I read was A Great and Terrible Beauty. I was intrigued by the excellent title, but what really got me interested was when I checked the Goodreads page to see what my friends thought. Opinions among my Goodreads friends are generally fairly uniform, but in this case they ranged from five stars to one. What would I think? Once I read it, I felt that all of those reviews were accurate.
A Great and Terrible Beauty is concerned with Gemma Doyle, a Victorian teenager who is sent off to finishing school after her mother’s death – which Gemma perceives in a vision. The writing itself is rich, lyrical, and lush in a way I have never otherwise encountered in fiction marketed towards young adults. The characterisation of Gemma is so nuanced and well drawn that the other characters seemed flat to me. The beautiful respect paid to the white female teenage characters’ sexuality is so lovely, but what ends up happening is that they exoticise an Indian male character and a Romani one in ways I found uncomfortable and could not get past. Which is, I suppose, par for the course in that kind of landscape, but I wish the narrative had twisted a little more to subvert it. I didn’t have a five star or a one star opinion, I had all of the opinions. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read more in the Gemma Doyle trilogy.
But I knew Libba Bray’s writing was good, so I asked around as to what I should read next. Beauty Queens, I was told. It’s a romp. It has lots of characters of colour.
You guys. I realise I spend half my life waxing lyrical about white lady YA authors who get race in their books deeply right, so bear with me for a minute while I say that Libba Bray wrote characters of colour whose stories I related to so hard. She turned her depiction of characters of colour right around. One of the great things about this book is that it switches between the viewpoints of its various characters, which fostered that depth of representation. Said characters are participants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, whose plane, en route to the pageant, crashes on a lost island. Will they get along? Will they survive? Will they get a chance to work on their tans? And what of the mysterious and malevolent Corporation in charge of the pageant and much of US society?
Everything I think about YA is influenced by Lauredhel at Hoyden About Town, so I must echo her in saying that one of the best things about this book is that you think it’s going to be straight up poking fun at pageantry and femininity, and then you realise that Bray is twisting the tools of femininity so that we can see them for what they are. Sometimes they can be tools of exploition, but sometimes tools for fun, sometimes for survival. This becomes hilarious, and horrifying, and literal in extraordinarily imaginative ways.
But my favourite thing? The cast of characters is diverse, but not in a headdeskingly contrived or uncomfortable way. I don’t want to spoil it for you by talking about who turns out in what way, but there’s a trans character who takes charge when she’s threatened with being outted. There’s a character who has been taught to feel shameful about her abundant sexual desire, and learns to embrace that desire. There’s a girl who sits with her uncertainty about her sexual orientation, and takes her disability into her physicality just as she refuses to let that be all anyone understands of her. There are fabulous, fabulous characters of colour who refuse to be tokenised under the pageant system, who struggle with racism and assimilation and other problems entirely. They are all pageant girls, and also more than that. Bray refuses to discount anyone because of who she is or what she does, or define anyone by a singular characteristic. This is an author showing the kind of love and respect for young woman that I want to see in novels directed at them.
Also, there are footnotes. I love footnoting in novels.
This book is hilarious, I was laughing or smiling almost the whole time. I had the fortune of meeting Libba Bray in person recently, and was not only able to tell her that I loved this book, but also to see that she’s even more funny in person. I am going to read Going Bovine ASAP, and chase up her latest, The Diviners, although I may treat the rest of the Gemma Doyle books with caution.