A Great and Terrible Beauty

Book review by
Stephanie Dunnewind, Common Sense Media
A Great and Terrible Beauty Book Poster Image
Engaging start to bestselling Gemma Doyle trilogy.
Popular with kids

Parents say

age 17+
Based on 6 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 17 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Positive Messages

 As the girls become friends, they learn about each other's struggles. On the negative side, book characters invoke negative stereotypes of Gypies, suggesting they are dangerous and "filthy thieves." 

Positive Role Models & Representations

The book includes both negative and positive role models. On the one hand, Felicity and Pippa are mean to Ann, playing pranks, putting her down, and falsely accusing her of stealing. They break rules, try to manipulate adults, and exclude other students from their group. They prefer to live in a fantasy world and ignore warnings about using their power in real life. They make mischief with this power rather than changing anything for good.  Pippa is insensitive. The girls blame their teacher for corrupting them, to deflect getting in trouble. Felicity seeks her own power, accusing Gemma of wanting the realms all to herself. On the positive side, the girls chafe against the restricted gender roles and societal expectations in the late 1800s. Pippa worries they'll become "living ghosts, haunting each other with what could be." Gemma insists her unpopular friend be included in the clique. Gemma comes to accept her mother's death and take control of her own destiny.

Violence

A dark shape devours a man. To avoid being devoured as well, Gemma's mother commits suicide by stabbing herself with a knife. When Gemma sees her mother's body, "a deep red pool of blood widens and flows beneath her lifeless body." A decaying creature with a skeletal face and snake hair chases Gemma. Pippa would rather die than face an arranged marriage with a 50-year-old. Ann cuts herself. Felicity slaps Pippa in the face. Two girls are killed in a mysterious fire. Mary and Sarah sacrifice a child, with Mary smothering her with her bare hands. The girls (except Gemma) get naked, chase, and kill a deer, hitting it in the head until it's pulpy. Felicity scrapes Kartik in the chest with a sharp stick. The creature tries to control Gemma.

Sex

Gemma's brother asks if she's "still chaste." Felicity has a secret relationship with a Gypsy. Felicity kisses Gemma full on the lips. The girls discuss "carnal" acts and Felicity says, "I'm going to have many men." Reading a diary, Felicity says she thinks Mary and Sarah are "Sapphists," who "prefer the love of women to men." Gemma dreams about almost having sex (with some detail), where he touches "a place I haven't let myself explore." A satyr peeks under the hem of a girl's dress.

Language

"Bastard," "hell."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Gemma's father is addicted to laudanum, an opiate. He also smoked a hookah while in India. The girls drink liquor together and pressure Ann even when she doesn't want to: "Drink or you're out of the club." Gemma is hung over the next morning and says she will only drink sherry, not whiskey, from then on. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know this Victorian Era-set novel involves the supernatural, including girls who visit with the dead and help spirits cross over into the afterlife. It has a few sexual moments and a fair amount of violence, including a suicide and sacrificial killing of a child.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bysouthernbelle57 June 11, 2013

graphic sex dreams

Graphic scene where the main character describes a man touching "parts she has yet to explore" and graphic drawing circles around her nibbles. Not oka... Continue reading
Parent of a 2 and 3 year old Written byreadresponsibly June 4, 2010

Not a tasteful book for anyone

I don't recommend this book to anyone, adult or teen. I came away feeling worse than when I started. It is a beautiful idea executed poorly. I forged throu... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byHistorylover15 July 8, 2012

From the teen herself...

A Great and Terrible Beauty is a book that I read in sixth grade, I was just coming out of my "Twilight" faze, and didn't really want to read any... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byfitzygrl10 September 25, 2011

An amazing teen novel

I read this book when i was 13, then reread when i was 15. I definitley understood it better the second time around. This is one of my favorites, a very intense... Continue reading

What's the story?

Sixteen-year-old Gemma is sent to a girls' boarding school in England after her mother's mysterious death. Gemma's visions give her the power to enter another realm where illusions seem real. Here, unlike in the stifling real world for proper young ladies in 1895, Gemma and her friends can pursue whatever most delights them. Emboldened by their new power, the young women refuse to acknowledge the realm's darkness until it threatens to destroy them.

Is it any good?

The friendship among the girls is marred by inconsistency, and the plot lurches a bit, but the novel's core mystery is still satisfying. Set in a time of corsets and Latin lessons, A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY contrasts the freedom of a fantasy world -- and the dark edges of power -- with Victorian society's constraints on women. This juxtaposition of detailed worlds forms the book's heart.

The start of a trilogy, A Great and Terrible Beauty resolves enough to serve as a standalone but leaves an evil character's identity and its heroine's future open for the sequels.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about their heart's desire. Do teens identify with Pippa's wish to find true love, or Ann's desire to be beautiful, or Felicity's craving for power?

  • Miss Moore, one of Gemma's teachers, tells the girls that the mind is a garden that requires cultivating. Do you agree? How do you "cultivate" your mind?

  • Miss Moore also says "There are no safe choices. Only other choices. . . Every choice has consequences." How does that apply in your life?

  • This book has supernatural elements; why do you think this type of book is so popular right now?

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