The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
(Joe Fletcher Books, 2021)
Reviewed by Anne F. Wilson
The Beautiful Ones are the crème de la crème of Loisail society. Aristocrats from old money, they despise the merely rich. They are however prepared to be amused by entertainers such as Hector Auvray, a telekinetic stage magician. Hector meets Nina at a ball, and is unimpressed by her “square jaw, black hair and thin lips”. But in any case, Hector is madly in love with Valerie Beaulieu, Nina’s chaperone and sponsor into society. Valerie is a Beautiful One, and Nina will join her if she marries well. Ten years ago, Valerie threw Hector over to marry Nina’s wealthy cousin Gaétan, and Hector crossed the ocean to make his fortune in the continent of Iblevad. But now Hector is back, and he is still obsessed with Valerie.
So far, so Georgette Heyer. We are not, however, in Regency England, but somewhere reminiscent of France at the dawn of the 20th Century. Motor cars and photographic cameras have recently been invented. We have no hint, however of French politics and history. Whilst I can understand the desire not to set the novel in actual France, to avoid pedantic people like me picking holes, it does leave the novel strangely unmoored, with neither history nor politics to anchor it. The characters gyrate weightlessly in a city of painted wallpapers and gilded furniture, glass conservatories, velvet curtains, mosaics and chandeliers.
Nina’s mother is hoping for a suitable match for her, but Nina wants “the romance of a lifetime followed by the grandest wedding imaginable”. Nina herself has telekinetic powers, and is also an amateur entomologist, both of which are likely to prove a hindrance in the search. Meanwhile Hector pays court to Nina in order to get closer to Valerie, and Nina asks him to help her manage her abilities, which currently involve breaking crockery and causing books to fall off shelves.
Although we are treated to descriptions of sumptuous interiors, ornaments and clothing, the prose itself is a little awkward, and could have done with a bit of sub-editing. The copyright date is 2017, so this is reprint of an early novel. I imagine that the author will have refined this in later works.
I did wonder why the author had chosen to tell this story. Her detailed physical description of Nina made me wonder it she was referring to a portrait, perhaps a family one. However, I was won over by the characters themselves, and the minute detail in which the author delineates their shifting relationships.
Hector and Nina are sensitively and believably portrayed. Although it’s hard to sympathise with Valerie, who, having renounced Hector, is unwilling to allow him a life with Nina, one can understand where she is coming from. Valerie married Gaétan under pressure from her impoverished family, and she is jealous of Nina’s freedom. “Valerie, reared watchfully like a flower in a hothouse, could not see any prettiness in [Nina]: her luxuriant qualities were to her an affront. It was like staring at a weed.” The motivations and behaviours of the minor characters are also believable and consistent.
And what of the telekinesis, or psychokinesis, as it is called in the novel? It’s a small scale talent, in which the practitioner needs long practice to perform magic tricks. There are no world changing master magicians, not even in Iblevad. It’s a miniature skill, suitable for the tiny canvas that the author is using.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I have read a fair number of romantic novels and despite minor flaws I would say that this is a good example of the genre. If you enjoy the minutest details of how relationships are conducted, ornamented by detailed descriptions of clothes, houses, jewellery and beetles, then this book is for you. If you are looking for new ideas, a sweeping overview of history, reflections on colonialism, political manoeuvrings or space battles, then you need to look elsewhere.