Last year I read Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s incredible novel Mexican Gothic and I absolutely loved it. So when I was offered the chance to read one of her earlier novels, being reissued in a beautiful hard back copy this week, I was really excited to tell you all about it as part of the blog blast.
They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis: the haphazard manifestations of her powers have long made her the subject of gossip – malicious neighbours even call her the Witch of Oldhouse.
But Nina’s life is about to change, for there is a new arrival in town: Hector Auvray, the renowned entertainer, who has used his own telekinetic talent to perform for admiring audiences around the world. Nina is dazzled by Hector, for he sees her not as a witch, but ripe with magical potential. Under his tutelage, Nina’s talent blossoms – as does her love for the great man.
But great romances are for fairy-tales, and Hector is hiding a secret bitter truth from Nina – and himself – that threatens their courtship.
This book is different from either Mexican Gothic or Gods of Jade and Shadow. This is a romance, brim full of melodrama and heartache. Yet there are also those wonderful threads that seem to exist through her work: feminism, awakening sexual desire, an eye for women’s self-expression through clothing, and a sprinkle of the paranormal. I didn’t know where the book was set at first, because the city name Loisail and personal names have a French feel to them, but certain word usage such as fall for autumn made me think of North America. The manners and etiquette seem almost British regency in date (this could give Bridgeton a real run for its money on the small screen), but the far off place Iblevard sounds like South America. This is our world, just not as we know it.
I absolutely adored Nina from the start, because I’ve felt like the slightly awkward girl who doesn’t fit. Next to her cousin’s wife Valerie she seems a bit of an ugly duckling, but she’s chaperoning Nina through the Loisail season in hope of finding her a suitable husband. Valerie is the stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed, perfectly coiffed, graceful beauty and her marriage to Gaetens was a great match, because he was a steady, slightly older man with financially stability. His finances have kept her family afloat. Whereas Nina has none of the superficial qualities of Valerie. Her hair is raven black and there’s more of a handsomeness to her than prettiness. Worse still, she is awkward, often saying the wrong thing, but she’s physically clumsy too and there’s more to Nina’s clumsiness than meets the eye.
From a young age Nina has been able to move objects with the power of her mind. Sometimes it’s involuntary, such as when her emotions are roused in anger or sadness. Nina doesn’t know much about telekinesis, it has simply always been with her and back at the family home in the country she is known as the Witch of Oldhouse. Here in Loisail though, nobody knows about her strange ability and if she is dressed well, schooled in how to behave and tries her hardest to be ‘normal’ maybe she could make a good marriage. Nina is inexperienced and naive, but trusts Valerie implicitly. Her cousin Gaetens has always had her best interests at heart so she happily puts her future in Valerie’s hands, but there’s a bitterness and envy in Valerie that runs very deep. She knows that her husband dotes on his cousin and he wouldn’t force her to marry anyone she didn’t consent to, but she thinks that Nina is spoiled. Valerie had to make a decision, to marry a man she didn’t love to get better conditions for her family. She had to grow up, put thoughts of love and romance aside, and take the best decision rationally as if marriage is a business. If she had to do this, why shouldn’t Nina be expected to grow up and accept someone chosen for her?
Then Hector Auvray comes into the picture, gentlemanly, handsome and, because he’s a performer, just a whiff of scandal about him. He’s definitely not the sensible choice, but controlling her emotions has never been one of Nina’s strengths. I loved that the pair shared this talent, Hector as the mentor and Nina as the ingenue, just starting out. When he calls on Nina at home, they can easily spend hours talking about telekinesis and practicing control. Nina visits his show which is quite glitzy, and he has an incredible finale of dancing mirrors. For me, there wasn’t quite enough magic. It’s as if magic realism was something she was toying with, then in later novels she really had the confidence to go for those paranormal elements. I knew this was a reissue, but those who don’t could be disappointed there isn’t more made of Nina’s skills. It’s almost as if she learned to control it rather than celebrate it. I’d have loved the author to write sections where they perform together, because I know how incredible they would have been.
There was something very Jane Austen about this society, it’s manners and it’s dilemmas for women. I thought of the disappointment a lot of readers feel when Lizzie Bennett’s friend Charlotte Lucas accepts the proposal of the ludicrous vicar Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie has rejected him and by doing so, placed her family in financial uncertainty, but Charlotte is more pragmatic. She knows he’s ridiculous, but she also knows he has a living, the patronage of a fine Lady, and a large enough house to lose him in. This is the decision that Valerie has made, but is very angry about. Her anger is at her family, but is also directed inward. She doesn’t like to face the truth; that she was the one who made this choice.
“She wanted to cry and could not. She wanted to weep for that proud girl who had broken her own heart and tossed it to the dogs, and she wanted to weep for the woman who had been left behind with a gaping hole in her soul. But if she could do it again, she knew she’d still retrace her steps. She was not Antonina Beaulieu, who offered herself like a sacrificial lamb, who gave everything of herself to the world for the world to devour. She was Valérie Véries. She hated herself sometimes for it, but she was Valérie Véries, a Beautiful One, not some weakling nor a halfwit”.
I also got hints of The Great Gatsby, every time I saw a character allude to an elite group of ‘Beautiful Ones’ the Lana Del Ray song ‘Young and Beautiful’ kept floating through my head. I felt it in this passage when Hector talks of the love he had when he was younger, the girl he asked to wait for him. He thinks he’s still in love with this woman, but he’s really still in love with his idea of this girl and what they could have had.
“He was chained to her, to this brilliant ideal of a perfect love. Because he had always known that if he could have (her) in his arms again, all would be well. It would be as though the decade that separated them had never happened and they would return to the happy days of their youth when everything was possible. It was as if he could unwind the clock with her aid. And once this happened, there would be nothing but joy.”
The first part of the novel is quite slow and as Hector and Nina meet and form their friendship, but I enjoyed getting to know them. I felt as if I was watching them fall in love very slowly, but it’s as if only the reader knows it. Then comes a terrible betrayal, and Nina loses that innocence of youth, but grows so much as a person. She starts to have pride in who she is, because she has space to be herself. When she returns to Loisail the following season she is a different woman, confident enough to make her own choices. There’s a new found confidence and experience in her character as she steps out into city. She’s refusing to be the ugly duckling of this story and has blossomed, but from the inside. There’s a feminist soul in Nina and I loved seeing that awakening. She’s also more comfortable with her ‘talent’ even if it isn’t on display very much. Before long a very suitable young man starts to court her; it would be a great match, but not love. As Hector Auvray drifts back to the city again, and wishes to resume their friendship, what effect on Nina will he have? I enjoyed this novel because it’s unashamedly romantic, and magical. It’s a coming of age story, showing this young woman’s awakening conscience as well as her desire. Nina Beaulieu learns to live life on her own terms and makes her own choices, especially where her heart is concerned.
Meet the Author
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Mexican Gothic, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Untamed Shore, and many other books. She has also edited several anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows (a.k.a. Cthulhu’s Daughters).