This is nothing like Twilight: the similarities are superficial at best, and a trope in common does not a similar book make.
The Beautiful is a story about desire and power (and desire for power) from the point of view of a young woman. That’s the main reason I don’t want to say it’s similar to the vampire story that basically preaches abstinence in your face. They share a few tropes and plot devices; apart from that, I really don’t see the similarities.
Now that I got that out of the way, due to the borderline ridiculous length of this review I want to give you a disclaimer: this post should have probably been titled “here’s what happens when Acqua takes fiction way too personally”; as this book hit far deeper than a vampire book has any right to, this got both long and personal and not necessarily as coherent as usual.
On the Portrayal of Sexual Assault and Self-Loathing
This is the story of Celine, a girl who left everything she knew from her life in France and went to live in New Orleans after a deeply traumatic event. There, she will get more and more involved in the murderous paranormal underbelly of the city.
So, The Beautiful is the most culturally Catholic book I’ve ever read, and unexpectedly so. Celine is French and biracial Korean, and was raised in what’s implied to be a (by today’s standards) strict Catholic environment. I’ve never seen a character with this specific kind of background before, especially not in an American fantasy book.
And did it make for some unpleasant flashbacks.
From age 3 to age 13, I attended an Italian Catholic school led by sisters; all of them were both old and what one could call old-school Catholics. The environment I was immersed in for most of my childhood isn’t too different from Celine’s own background, and I’m familiar with the ways it can be toxic.
Which brings me to the point: this book has the best portrayal of Catholic self-loathing I’ve ever seen.
Celine is a wild, carefree person. She has always craved danger and on some level power; what happened to her and brought her to New Orleans only forced her to face that fact, and now she is disgusted by herself.
Celine was sexually assaulted by a man, and she killed him in self-defense. She doesn’t feel regret about that, the book is pretty clear about it, and she states (quote) that:
“Celine still wasn’t sorry for what she had done.”
What horrifies her is the fact that she liked it. That she liked wielding power, that she didn’t feel remorse at all, for killing – which, according to Catholicism, is a mortal sin. In the eyes of the Catholic church, especially of the Catholic church of her time who would no doubt blame her for what happened instead of seeing it rightfully as (acceptable by Catholics) self-defense, Celine has just done something evil, that she could atone in only some specific way I don’t remember because I didn’t pay that much attention during the mandatory religion class, being an atheist. But you can’t atone without regret, which she doesn’t feel. Of course she feels bad about not feeling it, even though we know she did nothing wrong.
We know, and if one understands what she’s going through, they also should understand why she has deeply mixed feelings about what happened. I disagree with the comments that say “this book tells sexual assault victims they shouldn’t fight back” – which Celine doesn’t even think, as she does the very Catholic thing of feeling bad about her own emotions instead. And getting out of this self-hating mindset is the heart of her character arc!
“Sin isn’t as black and white as they’d like us to believe.”
A character arc that is really meaningful and close to me.
One might think this is a book that wants to talk about “the mindset of people at the time”, but I want people to know that is still really relevant today.
I’m an atheist and a lesbian. I’ve always known about the first but not about the second. How long did it take me to be somewhat comfortable with that after being raised in this kind of deeply homophobic religious environment – if I start counting from the moment I knew and understood that there was nothing wrong with being gay?
Three years, and I don’t even believe in sin. You internalize that sort of thing. If I internalized homophobia on a deep level, Celine internalized that women should make themselves small, be humble, not crave power and feel anything remotely positive in being able to best their attackers. She knows she did the right thing, she knows defending herself was the right thing, but what you know doesn’t matter. She hates herself and has to work through it. Which she does, and she’ll probably continue to do in the following books.
Power: who has it, who craves it
There’s something wonderful about seeing marginalized people be involved in a historical narrative that is specifically about power. Reading about La Cour des Lions, an underground supernatural society composed mostly by people of color and queer people, is the best kind of escapism. The kind that asks, what if the ones that white American society always tried to make powerless weren’t powerless at all, in more than one way? That’s giving power to those who usually don’t get it in fantasy – much less historical fantasy – books, which is why I love that this wasn’t contemporary.
Reading about women who crave power is something I’ve always loved and yet rarely find outside villain origin stories. Yes, Celine is somewhat self-centered. The narrative doesn’t praise nor tear her down for that, and I appreciated that so much. The book even lets her make the classic clueless straight girl faux pas (“but I’m not into you” and the like) when the lesbian side character Odette comes out to her, and the book calls her out for it! I loved that scene. Celine is flawed and – in her words – reckless, incomplete and inappropriate, and I love her deeply.
Often, women are asked to choose between love and ambition; here, power is a central theme of the romance as well, which is the right thread to follow in a story involving vampires, if you ask me. Both potential love interests have power over Celine, and Celine is attracted to them both in spite and because of that, but most of all, she wants power over them. The idea that their attraction to her is one of their weaknesses is probably the most attractive thing about the whole tangle to her.
And while both relationships are unbalanced, the ways the two love interests approach the situation are very different and tied to the power/agency theme, which is why the romance being a hinted-at love triangle makes sense (fight me) even though you know who she’ll very likely choose:
🌹 the mysterious Sébastien Saint Germain tries to keep the main character at a distance because danger (probably the most Twilight-y thing), but he is stunned by how daring and fearless Celine can be.
🌹 Michael Grimaldi is also surprised by Celine, but he wants her to tone herself down. He just wants to keep Celine safe from this horrible supernatural world, after all. (Did I somehow manage to omit that people are being murdered? Yes I did)
[by the way, I find an all-PoC love triangle – both the love interests are biracial, Bastien is of Taíno descent and Michael is Italian and Black – inherently not cliché]
I can’t wait to see this play out, and not because I don’t know the way this will likely play out. After all, the point of a romance and thematic arc isn’t surprising the reader.
Respect and Italian Representation
I’ve read more than a dozen American books that tried to incorporate Italian words into the text, especially in the form of an Italian-American character using both languages on the page.
Until The Beautiful, every single one of them got something wrong, because authors just don’t care enough to have someone who speaks the language check what they’re doing.
This book has a delightful scene in which a very realistic and stern Italian grandmother brings the main character she has never met before Italian food, and speaks both English and Italian on the page. There’s not one word wrong or out of place.
[Historical accuracy aside: as this book is set in 1872, an Italian character probably wouldn’t be speaking Italian at all, but another romance language or dialect – in this case, Sicilian, I think – but finding resources and people who are able to translate less-known languages spoken in Italy for you when you don’t even speak Italian is… well, it’s not reasonable to expect that from an English author, so I’m fine with this choice. I can barely write in my own region’s original language with a dictionary and I live here.]
As far as I know, the author doesn’t speak Italian, and she mentions asking for help to someone in the acknowledgments. The fact that she cared enough to do that – when most American authors don’t – meant a lot to me and made me see the whole book in a better, less nitpick-y way.
Because yes, I do have complaints
I had mixed feelings about the writing. The atmosphere is undeniably beautiful, the descriptions vivid and detailed, enough that they will feel like too much to those who don’t specifically like slow reads that are meant to be savored (yes this took me more than a week no I’m not annoyed about that).
However, sometimes there were some weird turns of phrase. Characters who are walking as if they were moving through water to mean that they’re graceful (how does that look like? Are they swimming? Doesn’t feel graceful), for example; and while I understand that self-identifying as a monster is in fact one of the coping mechanisms typical of people who loathe themselves, reading about the movement of Celine’s “dark creature” only made me think of tapeworms.
And were all those Shakespeare quotes necessary?
I also recommend going into this with appropriate expectations for a vampire romance, which means: The Beautiful is as cheesy as one would expect. From the oh-so-forbidden lust we mostly won’t call lust because this is YA (cue weird metaphors) to the pages-long villain monologue, everything about this book is overdramatic. But I mean, if you’re going to do sexy vampires, being understated doesn’t really make sense either.
And now, to the biggest complaint: the unnecessary PoVs. For most of the book, apart from Celine’s narration, you also read from the villain’s PoV – except you don’t know who the villain is or their motivations or anything that would make their chapters interesting; you only get vague and ominous word vomit about tearing enemies down. Those chapters were so boring and didn’t actually add anything, not even suspense.
Also, the worldbuilding revolving around the paranormal creatures? Messy and underdeveloped. I get that it wasn’t the point and Celine couldn’t know anything anyway, but I hope the next book clears it up, because I definitely will be reading it.
My rating: ★★★★½