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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

June 21, 1895

Bombay, India



"Please tell me that's not going to be part of my birthday dinner this
evening."

I am staring into the hissing face of a cobra. A surpris-ingly pink tongue slithers in and out of a cruel mouth while an Indian man whose eyes are the blue of blindness inclines his head toward my mother and explains in Hindi that cobras make very good eating.

My mother reaches out a white-gloved finger to stroke the snake's back. "What do you think, Gemma? Now that you're sixteen, will you be dining on cobra?"

The slithery thing makes me shudder. "I think not, thank you."

The old, blind Indian man smiles toothlessly and brings the cobra closer. It's enough to send me reeling back where I bump into a wooden stand filled with little statues of Indian deities. One of the statues, a woman who is all arms with a face bent on terror, falls to the ground. Kali, the destroyer. Lately, Mother has accused me of keeping her as my unofficial patron saint. Lately, Mother and I haven't been getting on very well. She claims it's because I've reached an impossible age. I state emphatically to anyone who will listen that it's all because she refuses to take me to London.

"I hear in London, you don't have to defang your meals first," I say. We're moving past the cobra man and into the throng of people crowding every inch of Bombay's frenzied marketplace. Mother doesn't answer but waves away an organ-grinder and his monkey. It's unbearably hot. Beneath my cotton dress and crinolines, sweat streaks down my body. The flies-my most ardent admirers-dart about my face. I swat at one of the little winged beasts, but it escapes and I can almost swear I hear it mocking me. My misery is reaching epidemic proportions.

Overhead, the clouds are thick and dark, giving warning that this is monsoon season, when floods of rain could fall from the sky in a matter of minutes. In the dusty bazaar the turbaned men chatter and squawk and bargain, lifting brightly colored silks toward us with brown, sunbaked hands. Everywhere there are carts lined with straw baskets offering every sort of ware and edible-thin, coppery vases; wooden boxes carved into intricate flower designs; and mangos ripening in the heat.

"How much farther to Mrs. Talbot's new house? Couldn't we please take a carriage?" I ask with what I hope is a noticeable annoyance.

"It's a nice day for a walk. And I'll thank you to keep a civil tone."

My annoyance has indeed been noted.

Sarita, our long-suffering housekeeper, offers pomegranates in her leathery hand. "Memsahib, these are very nice. Perhaps we will take them to your father, yes?"

If I were a good daughter, I'd bring some to my father, watch his blue eyes twinkle as he slices open the rich, red fruit, then eats the tiny seeds with a silver spoon just like a proper British gentleman.

"He'll only stain his white suit," I grumble. My mother starts to say something to me, thinks better of it, sighs-as usual. We used to go everywhere together, my mother and I-visiting ancient temples, exploring local customs, watching Hindu festivals, staying up late to see the streets bloom with candlelight. Now, she barely takes me on social calls. It's as if I'm a leper without a colony.

"He will stain his suit. He always does," I mumble in my defense, though no one is paying me a bit of attention except for the organ-grinder and his monkey. They're following my every step, hoping to amuse me for money. The high lace collar of my dress is soaked with perspiration. I long for the cool, lush green of England, which I've only read about in my grandmother's letters. Letters filled with gossip about tea dances and balls and who has scandalized whom half a world away, while I am stranded in boring, dusty India watching an organ-grinder's monkey do a juggling trick with dates, the same trick he's been performing for a year.

"Look at the monkey, memsahib. How adorable he is!" Sarita says this as if I were still three and clinging to the bottoms of her sari skirts. No one seems to understand that I am fully sixteen and want, no, need to be in London, where I can be close to the museums and the balls and men who are older than six and younger than sixty.

"Sarita, that monkey is a trained thief who will be begging for your wages in a moment," I say with a sigh. As if on cue, the furry urchin scrambles up and sits on my shoulder with his palm outstretched. "How would you like to end up in a birthday stew?" I tell him through clenched teeth. The monkey hisses. Mother grimaces at my ill manners and drops a coin in its owner's cup. The monkey grins triumphantly and leaps across my head before running away.

A vendor holds out a carved mask with snarling teeth and elephant ears. Without a word, Mother places it over her face. "Find me if you can," she says. It's a game she's played with me since I could walk-a bit of hide-and-seek meant to make me smile. A child's game.

"I see only my mother," I say, bored. "Same teeth. Same ears."

Mother gives the mask back to the vendor. I've hit her vanity, her weak point.

"And I see that turning sixteen is not very becoming to

my daughter," she says.

"Yes, I am sixteen. Sixteen. An age at which most decent girls have been sent for schooling in London." I give the word decent an extra push, hoping to appeal to some maternal sense of shame and propriety.

"This looks a bit on the green side, I think." She's peering intently at a mango. Her fruit inspection is all-consuming.

"No one tried to keep Tom imprisoned in Bombay," I say, invoking my brother's name as a last resort. "He's had four whole years there! And now he's starting at university."

"It's different for men."

"It's not fair. I'll never have a season. I'll end up a spinster with hundreds of cats who all drink milk from china bowls." I'm whining. It's unattractive, but I find I'm powerless to stop.

"I see," Mother says, finally. "Would you like to be paraded around the ballrooms of London society like some prize horse there to have its breeding capabilities evaluated? Would you still think London was so charming when you were the subject of cruel gossip for the slightest infraction of the rules? London's not as idyllic as your grandmother's letters make it out to be."

"I wouldn't know. I've never seen it."

"Gemma . . ." Mother's tone is all warning even as her smile is constant for the Indians. Mustn't let them think we British ladies are so petty as to indulge in arguments on the streets. We only discuss the weather, and when the weather is bad, we pretend not to notice.

Sarita chuckles nervously. "How is it that memsahib is now a young lady? It seems only yesterday you were in the nursery. Oh, look, dates! Your favorite." She breaks into a gap-toothed smile that makes every deeply etched wrinkle in her face come alive. It's hot and I suddenly want to scream, to run away from everything and everyone I've ever known.

"Those dates are probably rotting on the inside. Just like India."

"Gemma, that will be quite enough." Mother fixes me with her glass-green eyes. Penetrating and wise, people call them. I have the same large, upturned green eyes. The Indians say they are unsettling, disturbing. Like being watched by a ghost. Sarita smiles down at her feet, keeps her hands busy adjusting her brown sari. I feel a tinge of guilt for saying such a nasty thing about her home. Our home, though I don't really feel at home anywhere these days.

"Memsahib, you do not want to go to London. It is gray and cold and there is no ghee for bread. You wouldn't like it."

A train screams into the depot down near the glittering bay. Bombay. Good bay, it means, though I can't think of anything good about it right now. A dark plume of smoke from the train stretches up, touching the heavy clouds. Mother watches it rise.

"Yes, cold and gray." She places a hand on her throat, fingers the necklace hanging there, a small silver medallion of an all-seeing eye atop a crescent moon. A gift from a villager, Mother said. Her good-luck charm. I've never seen her without it.

Sarita puts a hand on Mother's arm. "Time to go, memsahib."

Mother pulls her gaze away from the train, drops her hand from her necklace. "Yes. Come. We'll have a lovely time at Mrs. Talbot's. I'm sure she'll have lovely cakes just for your birthday-"

A man in a white turban and thick black traveling cloak stumbles into her from behind, bumping her hard.

"A thousand pardons, honorable lady." He smiles, offers a deep bow to excuse his rudeness. When he does, he reveals a young man behind him wearing the same sort of strange cloak. For a moment, the young man and I lock eyes. He isn't much older than I am, probably seventeen if a day, with brown skin, a full mouth, and the longest eyelashes I have ever seen. I know I'm not supposed to find Indian men attractive, but I don't see many young men and I find I'm blushing in spite of myself. He breaks our gaze and cranes his neck to see over the hordes.

"You should be more careful," Sarita barks at the older man, threatening him with a blow from her arm. "You better not be a thief or you will be punished."

"No, no, memsahib, only I am terribly clumsy." He drops his smile and with it the cheerful simpleton routine. He whispers low to my mother in perfectly accented English. "Circe is near."

It makes no sense to me, just the ramblings of a very clever thief said to distract us. I start to say as much to my mother but the look of sheer panic on her face stops me cold. Her eyes are wild as she whips around and scans the crowded streets like she's looking for a lost child.


From the Hardcover edition.
Libba Bray|Author Q&A

About Libba Bray

Libba Bray - A Great and Terrible Beauty

Photo © Ingalisa Schrobsdorff

"I’m one of those people who has to write. If I don’t write, I feel itchy and depressed and cranky. So everybody’s glad when I write and stop complaining already."–Libba Bray

Libba Bray is the author of the acclaimed A Great and Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
What is it about writing an author bio that gives me that deer-in-headlights feeling? It’s not exactly like I’m going to say “I was born in Alabama…” and somebody’s going to jump up and snarl, “Oh yeah? Prove it!” At least I hope not.

I think what gets me feeling itchy is all that emphasis on the facts of a life, while all the juicy, relevant, human oddity stuff gets left on the cutting room floor. I could tell you the facts–I lived in Texas for most of my life; I live in New York City with my husband and five-year-old son now; I have freckles and a lopsided smile; I’m allergic to penicillin.

But that doesn’t really give you much insight into me. That doesn’t tell you that I stuck a bead up my nose while watching TV when I was four and thought I’d have to go to the ER and have it cut out. Or that I once sang a punk version of “Que Sera Sera” onstage in New York City. Or that I made everyone call me “Bert” in ninth grade for no reason that I can think of. See what I mean?

God is in the details. So with that in mind, here is my bio. Sort of.

TWENTY-ONE THINGS YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT ME
by Libba Bray

1. I lived in Texas until I was 26 years old, then I moved to New York City with $600.00 in my shoe (’cause muggers won’t take it out of your shoe, y’know . . . riiiiight . . .) and a punchbowl (my grandmother’s gift) under my arm. I ended up using the punchbowl box as an end table for two years.

2. My dad was a Presbyterian minister. Yes, I am one of those dreaded P.K.s–Preacher’s Kids. Be afraid. Be very afraid . . .

3. The first story I ever wrote, in Mrs. McBee’s 6th grade English class, was about a girl whose family is kidnapped and held hostage by a murderous lot of bank robbers who intend to kill the whole family–including the dog–until the 12-year-old heroine foils the plot and saves the day. It included colored pencil illustrations of manly-looking, bearded criminals smoking, and, oblivious to the fact that The Beatles had already sort of laid claim to the title, I called my novel, HELP. My mom still has a copy. And when I do something she doesn’t like, she threatens to find it.

4. My favorite word is “redemption.” I like both its meaning and the sound. My least favorite word is “maybe.” “Maybe” is almost always a “no” drawn out in cruel fashion.

5. My three worst habits are overeating, self-doubt, and the frequent use of the “f” word.

6. The three things I like best about myself are my sense of humor, my ability to listen, and my imagination.

7. I have an artificial left eye. I lost my real eye in a car accident when I was eighteen. In fact, I had to have my entire face rebuilt because I smashed it up pretty good. It took six years and thirteen surgeries. However, I did have the pleasure of freezing a plastic eyeball in an ice cube, putting it in a friend’s drink, (“Eyeball in your highball?”) and watching him freak completely. Okay, so maybe that’s not going down on my good karma record. But it sure was fun.

8. In 7th grade, my three best friends and I dressed up as KISS and walked around our neighborhood on Halloween. Man, we were such dorks.

9. I once spent New Year’s Eve in a wetsuit. I’d gone to the party in a black dress that was a little too tight (too many holiday cookies) and when I went to sit down, the dress ripped up the back completely. Can we all say, mortified? The problem was, my friends were moving out of their house–everything was packed and on a truck–and there was nothing I could put on . . . but a wetsuit that they still had tacked to the wall. I spent the rest of the party maneuvering through throngs of people feeling like a giant squid.

10. I got married in Florence, Italy. My husband and I were in love but totally broke, so we eloped and got married in Italy, where he was going on a business trip. We had to pull a guy off the street to be our witness. It was incredibly romantic. Florence is still one of my favorite cities in the world.

11. I often write in longhand and type it into the computer later, editing as I go. Sitting in my favorite coffeehouse with a new notebook and a hot cup of java is my idea of heaven.

12. I’m related to Davy Crockett on my mom’s side. Honest.

13. I grew up doing theatre and spent a long time as a playwright. I still think very visually when I write.

14. Some of my favorite movies of all time (subject to change when I think of other movies I love) are All About Eve, Brazil, Blade Runner, Spinal Tap, Citizen Kane, Harold & Maude, To Kill a Mockingbird, Singin’ in the Rain, and probably a million more that I can’t think of right now. I have never made it through The Wizard of Oz without crying. Not once.

15. Naming my favorite books feels like naming a favorite child–impossible. But here’s my list of some Y.A. books I love as of 4:03pm today. Tithe by Holly Black. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. Lord of the Flies by William Golding. 33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp. Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (not really Y.A. but I read it when I was 16 and it rocked my world). Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Here’s what’s on my nightstand to read: The First Part Last by Angela Johnson. Acceleration by Graham McNamee. The Literary Opus of Daniel Elam by Daniel Elam. By the Time You Finish this Book You Might Be Dead by Aaron Zimmerman.

16. I love to be scared. Not “hey, I think I smell smoke . . .” scared, but creepy, paranoid, what’s-that-out-there-in-the-dark, ghost story scared. It’s no surprise that I was the girl who got invited to the slumber parties because I could be counted on to tell a tale to scare the bejesus out of you.

17. In homage to a book I just read entitled, FIVE MEN WHO BROKE MY HEART, I submit: The first boy who broke my heart (age 6) didn’t want to sit next to me because I’d wet my pants in reading circle once and he thought I was gross. Damn my small bladder! The second boy who broke my heart (age 16) was a drummer with a band (the start of a trend, folks…) and he threw me over for a really cool chick I couldn’t even bring myself to hate. The third boy who broke my heart (ages 20—24, ay yi yi . . .) was a strapping hunk of bodaciousness with the mind of Einstein. We had the exact same birthday, same year and everything. So the time he forgot to wish me a happy birthday was kind of the beginning of the end, I think. The fourth boy who broke my heart (age 25) was also a drummer. I had to stop with the drummers. The fifth boy . . . well, I married him, and if he breaks my heart, I’m going to burn all his favorite, rare import punk vinyl in the middle of the living room, so he’s been warned.

18. I’m one of those people who has to write. If I don’t write, I feel itchy and depressed and cranky. So everybody's glad when I write and stop complaining already.

19. My Pennsylvania Dutch great-great-great grandmother was supposedly a psychic who could see and speak to the dead. Sort of a witch, I guess. Her husband was an undertaker, and she would have these visions of someone bringing in a string of a particular size (people were measured for their coffins in this way) and it would come true. Creepy stuff, but fascinating.

20. If I were stuck on a deserted island, the five indispensable CDs I’d take would be London Calling by the Clash, Quadrophenia by The Who, Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits, To Venus and Back by Tori Amos, and Elvis Costello’s Greatest Hits.

21. I hate doughnuts. Weird but true.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Libba Bray about A Great and Terrible Beauty

Q: From the beginning, you envisioned Gemma as a heroine who kicks butt and takes names–all in a corset and crinoline. What changed about the character after you began writing the book? What stayed the same?
A: It’s hard to believe, but I actually envisioned Gemma and the book as being much lighter and funnier. Yeah, right, because dealing with supernatural visions, secret societies, and lots of not-quite-dead people is always a real laugh riot, right? Okey-dokey. Moving on . . . I did always see Gemma as sardonic, a social commentator in the vein of a Jane Austen character, and I think that stayed the same. But as often happens in the course of the writing, the character took over, and I discovered that Gemma was much more vulnerable and conflicted and infuriating and all those yummy things that make people into people. And for that, I am glad.

Q: Gemma is accepted into the most powerful and mean-spirited clique at Spence only because of blackmail–she keeps a secret that could destroy Felicity’s future. But as her friendships with Felicity, Pippa, and Ann develop, she begins to love and trust them. And she is offered, in turn, love and trust, anger and mistrust. The only rule of the Order is that the girls must always tell each other the truth. Their friendship is ultimately as dangerous as it is passionate. As you wrote about Gemma, Felicity, Pippa, and Ann, did you have anyone you know in mind?
A: Yes and no. To a certain extent, I drew on my own adolescent friendships, which were very powerful and important in my life. I felt rather estranged from my family emotionally as a teenager, and those friendships were everything to me. But at some point, the characters take on a life of their own and become who they are, and you, the writer, are just along for the ride. For me, it’s more about recalling the dynamics of certain relationships and the feelings involved (What does it feel like to be the new kid? How is it that one day you’re best friends and the next, you’re fighting like mad? What is it like to stand on the precipice of doing something you know could get you in big trouble?) rather than focusing on, say, when Felicity says this, it reminds me exactly of my old pal So-and-so. That sense of discovering your characters and how they react is part of the joy of writing fiction for me. It teaches me about human nature, and I’m always interested in that.

Q: Your story is rich in Victorian period detail, yet the characters feel real and immediate, as if they were alive today. How were you able to get inside the heads of girls who lived over a hundred years ago?
A:Uh, well . . . I cheated. There’s definitely an element of “fusion cooking” at work here. I wanted to have all the trappings of that era, which fascinates me. I wanted to have that feeling of girls near the dawn of a new century, of girls who are torn between two worlds in so many senses: adolescence and adulthood; sexual awakening and sexual innocence; the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries; the lives afforded their mothers and teachers and the more daring lives they might themselves be able to live. But I wanted them to have a universality to them, too; a sort of modernity of feeling. However, in doing research, in reading novels and correspondence of the time, I discovered that girls are girls, feelings are always feelings, whether it’s 1895 or 2005. Those feelings–the desire to be loved and understood, the fear of disappointing others, longings and yearnings, fear of and curiosity about the unknown–are timeless. The difficulties of growing into selfhood are the same, in many ways.

Q: Gemma and her friends feel invisible, as if they don’t count in the world they inhabit. In reference to the qualities a man looks for in a wife, Gemma’s brother, Tom, puts it, “Above all, she should keep his name above scandal and never call attention to herself” (p. 27). When Gemma and her friends bring power from the Realms back to the real world, they become literally invisible and are able to do things they couldn’t before. Gemma says, “Oh, God, the great and terrible beauty of it” (p. 334). This is a bit of a delicious irony. What did you mean by giving the book the title A Great and Terrible Beauty?
A: Wow, will this be on the test? Was this on the review? Who’s coming up with these questions, anyway? Okay, let me put down my potato chips and really think about this. I suppose I meant that having power is both an awesome and a terrifying thing. It is awesome in that one gains confidence and freedom. But it is terrifying in that there are consequences, and one must accept the terms of this agreement. It’s like Spider-Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” You can’t have one without the other. Empowerment and choice: great, terrible, and beautiful. Talk amongst yourselves. Potato chip, anyone?

Q: On AGreatandTerribleBeauty.com, you mention that Kartik is based on a boy you used to have a crush on. Does the real Kartik know you’ve written about him?
A: Why, did he call you? Seriously, I have no idea. I haven’t seen him since my waitressing days in Austin, Texas. It was the proverbial summer crush. Oooh, he was such a cutie! Kartik also shares qualities with another friend from my college days. He was half Indian, and we had a rather passionate friendship. We argued as much as we laughed. But there was a real meeting of the minds, and he challenged me in some very good ways. Sadly, I lost contact with him, too. I keep hoping we’ll connect again because I still owe him $250. You’d think he’d want to collect. Christopher, dude–I’m good for it now!

Q:What do you think of the term chick lit? Would you categorize A Great and Terrible Beauty as chick lit?
A:Argh! Okay, here’s the thing: I hate the term chick lit because it feels demeaning. Nobody calls the work of John Updike and Philip Roth old white guy lit. By and large, the writing of men is not categorized and compartmentalized in this way beyond specific publishing genres, i.e., mystery, horror, science fiction. I have the same problem when movies are referred to as chick flicks. It’s dismissive; it says that the themes that often show up in women’s novels and films and the perspective of women artists are somehow less than. I think that was what stuck in my craw about Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections) dissing the Oprah show. I felt that what he was essentially saying was “Oh, she champions those, you know, ‘women writers’ and I don’t want to be lumped in with them.”
Now, that said, can we please, please move away from this recent spate of navel-gazing, whining, shopping-obsessed superficial novels in which guys are just accessories like the right shoes, and the deepest feelings encountered are a sort of self-absorbed sulkiness on the part of the heroine? Puh-leeeze. People, I did not march for NOW in my teens for this crap. Okay, rant done. Carry on.

Q: In A Great and Terrible Beauty, there is a secret women’s society, the Order, whose job is to guard the Realms and pass along knowledge of it, and a secret men’s society, the Rakshana, whose job is to prevent women from using the Realms at all. Did you see these battling groups in terms of men versus women? Do you believe there is a battle of the sexes going on today?
A: Wow. Tough question. While I was writing Beauty, I thought a great deal about how historically, governments, the medical establishment, and religion have sought to keep women from having access to real power. Women who had some sort of power–midwives and herbalists, let’s say–were viewed with distrust and even hunted down and burned. So I suppose I did see the Rakshana as any religious group that views women as “other” and wants to hold the reins on them. That said, I think that any group in power, no matter who they are, does not want to relinquish said power.
As for the second question, I think we’ve become more of a polarized society in general, and that saddens me. I think what concerns me vis-à-vis the “battle of the sexes” is more a societal shift toward these rigid gender roles. You know–flip on MTV and in the majority of videos, the guys adopt this macho posturing and the women are all about sex and fashion. I don’t think I’ve seen the cover of any recent magazine aimed at youth that did not involve a scantily clad nymphet staring at the camera, all wide-eyed and pouty-lipped, as if to say, “Gee, this is all I know how to do. I meant to put on clothes and, like, have interests, but, you know, like, it was just so hard to figure out how the straps work on my bra.” Snarl.
It just seems like there’s got to be more middle ground. I’ve always cherished my male friends as much as my female friends. We are different. We have different things to contribute, and that is great. We also need to be aware, as women, that we often hold ourselves back. I often say that the most radical question a girl or a woman can ever ask is “What do I want?” We are not conditioned to ask that. But only by asking yourself that, by knowing what you want, can you really go and get it. Only by knowing what you want can you stop waiting for other people to supply it for you, which just leads to frustration and a feeling of powerlessness. What you want is valid. What you care about is important. Who you are, all of it–not just the “nice” qualities–is important. And if anybody wants to photograph you for the cover of a major magazine wearing only a thong and an expression like you’ve gotten something in your eye, just tell them to . . . well, just say no.

Q: Miss Moore says, “There are no safe choices. . . . Only other choices” (p. 267). What does she mean by this? Will we see more of Miss Moore in the next book?
A:I think that as a society, we are very consumed with the idea of safety and security. It drives our economy. It builds our gated communities. But safety is an illusion. There’s really no such thing. I think anyone living in this world today knows that, on some level. (This is not to say that you should test this theory by jumping off a cliff or going without your seat belt, okay? There’s illusion and there’s stupidity. Don’t cross the line.) We want to know that we are making the “right” choice, the money-back-guaranteed choice. The thing is that every choice carries with it a sense of personal responsibility and accountability and a degree of insecurity. You have to live with that and step outside the fear. You will definitely see more of Moore in book two. (More of Moore? Yikes.)

Q:You’ve had many jobs–waitress, nanny, burrito roller, to name a few. Do you believe that these widely ranging experiences helped or hindered you on your path toward becoming a published author? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A:Every experience you ever have as a human being on this planet–from the mundane to the absurd to the sublime–goes right into the old writing bank. I like to use them all. At least, I’d like to think I can salvage something from that soul-sucking six months of saying, “Would you like hot sauce or a side of queso with that? Thank you, drive through, please.” (I’ve long argued that everyone in this country should be forced to spend at least two years in a service-related industry. We might end up with a nation of people who say please and thank you and tip twenty percent. But that’s another story.) My advice to aspiring writers is pretty straightforward: (1) Read everything. Read what interests and moves you. Read what challenges you. Read for pleasure. Read for craft. Read instead of watching reality TV. Just read. It just might change your life. I know it has mine. (2) Live your life. Writing’s all about that, anyway. And no one’s living your life, seeing things the way you see them, but you. You are unique, and this is a beautiful, beautiful thing, grasshopper. (3) You can write about anything you want, just don’t lie. (4) Have fun, for heaven’s sake! It’s not brain surgery. You won’t kill anyone if you choose the wrong words. You can just fix ’em later. Writing is power. You are in control of it. You are able to say whatever you need to say, long to say, must say. And that is an amazing feeling.

Q: The last line of the novel is perhaps the most powerful: “Because I want to see how far I can go before I have to stop.” In the course of the story, Gemma learns a lot about herself. But she has yet to fully understand the role she will play for the Order–and the role she will play in her own life. Can you tell us anything about the road Gemma will travel in Rebel Angels, the companion to A Great and Terrible Beauty?
A: I could tell you. But then I’d have to kill you.

Awards

Awards

WINNER 2004 ALA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER 2005 Texas TAYSHAS High School Reading List
NOMINEE 2005 Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Despite visions and a special destiny, Gemma is not so unlike the other girls at Spence in her feelings of alienation and her yearning for acceptance. Gemma’s need to fit into her new school leads to her being locked in the chapel in the middle of the night. Would you have made the same choice? Have you ever done something you didn’t want to do, to get someone to like you? Have you ever taken advantage of someone who wanted you to like him or her?

2. The Realms are a place where anything seems possible. Each of the four girls wants one thing above all else: Felicity desires power, Pippa seeks love, Ann wants beauty, and Gemma craves self-knowledge. Does any of the characters achieve her goal by the end of the story? Why or why not? What would you want?

3. Gemma says of Felicity, “I don’t yet know what power feels like. But this is surely what it looks like, and I think I’m beginning to understand why those ancient women had to hide in caves. Why our parents and teachers and suitors want us to behave properly and predictably. It’s not that they want to protect us; it’s that they fear us” (p. 207). What kind of power is Gemma talking about? What is it that she thinks the parents and teachers and suitors fear?

4. Women. Power. These two words conjure many images and emotions, and they appear throughout A Great and Terrible Beauty. What connections does Libba Bray draw between the two words? How does she characterize the Victorians’ view of powerful women? How do you think powerful women are viewed today?

5. Bray paints the Victorian age as a time when appearances must be kept up at all times. Appearances matter more than reality, and anything interesting is kept a secret. For example, Gemma’s family hides the nature of Virginia Doyle’s death to avoid scandal. Likewise, in the Realms, appearances are deceiving. Gemma, Ann, Pippa, and Felicity believe their dreams are coming true–but is that really the case? What do you think the author meant by drawing a parallel between reality and paradise? Is it ever really possible to escape or change reality?

6. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said, “Bray brilliantly depicts a caste system, in which girls are taught to abandon individuality in favor of a man’s wishes, as a deeper and darker horror than most things that go bump in the night.” Do you think Gemma has achieved a certain freedom by the end of the novel? Are her supernatural powers responsible for bringing about this freedom? Do you think she would have been such a rebel if it hadn’t been for her magic?

7. In Diary of an Author on AGreatandTerribleBeauty.com, Libba Bray says, “Why do we do this to our girls? Why do we spend a lifetime whittling them down into bite-sized nuggets, something easily digested that will upset no stomach? Why can’t we allow them to ask for what they want?” Does the novel answer that question? If so, how? Do you believe that conditions for women have improved over the past hundred years?

8. The girls of Spence have a great deal of adult supervision, but there is a glaring absence of parental love. What role does this absence play in Gemma’s and her friends’ lives and the choices they make? Do you think Pippa would have made a different choice had her parents behaved differently? How would Gemma’s and Felicity’s lives be changed if their fathers were available–in Gemma’s case mentally, and in Felicity’s case physically? What about Ann?

9. It’s a dream, only a dream,” Gemma thinks of her sexually charged encounter with Kartik (p. 219). Why do you think Gemma stops the fantasy when she does? Why do you think the author chose to make this scene a dream rather than a reality? Do you believe this makes Gemma’s experience any less “real” to her?

10. The Realms’ answer to Gemma’s desire for self-knowledge is Virginia Doyle. Why do you think Gemma must understand her mother in order to understand herself? Gemma concludes, “I’m going to have to let her go to accept the mother I’m only just discovering” (p. 394). How are the two mothers Gemma refers to different? Why does Gemma have to forgive her mother first if she is to understand her?


  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
  • March 22, 2005
  • Juvenile Fiction - Historical
  • Ember
  • $9.99
  • 9780385732314

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