By Jas Faulkner
For a long time, popular wisdom dictated that genre fiction for girls consisted of dainty prose about the vagaries of friendships and horses that no one else could tame. There were exceptions: the intrepid sleuths and a few other heroes who occasionally saw print. There were even a few girls in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps series who didn’t mind taking on whatever was growling at the foot of the basement stairs or becoming monsters themselves. Love it or hate it, this would change in 2005 when the first of a series of novels by Stephanie Meyer dominated nearly every sales indicator. In spite of tepid to unabashedly negative critical response, in 2005, seventeen million people, mostly mothers and daughters, bought copies of Twilight.
In publishing, the seductive come-hither sales figures of sparkly vampires kept Ms Meyer writing and publishing three more novels as a legion of paranormal romances fluttered on figurative leathery wings to the shelves that were cleared to make room for this dark little truffle of a genre. Soon the whole “Vampires and demons and werewolves! Oh my!” dance of literary duplication would become a mini-industry unto itself.
Like any other genre that enjoys quick growth and expansive reach, it was inevitable that writers would branch out to include books about zombies, angels, fairies and every other bipedal mythical figure that could pucker up and make a girl (or her mother) believe in magic. It was only a matter of time before the speckled, glittery, mushroom circle of magickal creatures would run out of fey beings on the land and move to matching up teen romantics with seafolk.
By seafolk, I am referring to mermaids and their male counterparts, merrows (or mermen). Recent entries into this subgenre are predictably light fare. The romances are usually sunkissed mismatches challenged by the greater powers that be who simply don’t understand the special love between a girl and her fish or a fin and his dish. This is why Elizabeth Fama’s Monstrous Beauty presents such a refreshing departure for those who want something a little darker than Teen Disney Princess pink.
The novel, which is constructed of dual narratives set in 1872 and present day New England reveals a rich, deeply woven tapestry of worlds that entwine because of a generations-old curse that shortens the lives of women sharing a lineage for over one hundred and thirty years. The late Nineteenth Century characters move and breathe in the reader’s imagination as fully vested individuals instead of period archetypes. Hester, the central character in the present day half of the story, is believably teenaged and certainly not without her own set of age-appropriate issues. She is a breath of fresh air, standing out in the crowd of Bellas/Mary Annes by dint of there being so much more to her than just the air plant existence, the special snowflake who lives only to be loved and rescued from her status as an unappreciated star.
While Hester is the true heart of Monstrous Beauty, it is Fama’s world building and her treatment of existing lore that makes this novel a worthy addition to any reader’s library. Her seafolk are closer to the seductive, shadowy entities that haunted the dreams of coast dwellers, sailors, and fishermen than the sweet twee nursery versions that live under the sea of popular imagination. Fama’s Syrenka is a creature who follows a natural code that is red of tooth and claw. The fateful events that set the enchantments in motion follow all of the academic conditions for narrative magic. This is by all accounts a fairy tale, but one that draws on themes of female identity and kinship and destiny in ways that are far deeper and more satisfying than anything you’ll find in a bowdlerised translation of older folk collections.
Readers who are more interested in a ripping yarn than a lit crit treatment of folk motifs will not be disappointed,either. As the ties that bind the past and present pull tighter, (both of which are equally engaging, something that doesn’t always happen when this device is employed) most readers will want stick around for at least one more chapter. It’s a fast read.
Monstrous Beauty is an excellent choice for anyone who loves a good fairy tale, for those mothers and daughters who miss being able to share a well written romance and mystery, and for anyone who loves a good scary story in the vein of Hawthorne and Irving.
This review was written based on my perusal of an ARC courtesy of Farrar Straus Giroux. It will be available for sale on September 4th. Don’t miss it!
Official website for Monstrous Beauty: http://us.macmillan.com/monstrousbeauty/ElizabethFama