Book cover: The Beautiful Ones - Silvia Moreno-Garcia (a silhouette of a long-haired woman ins a gown against a green background)Nina Beaulieu is a debutante, spending the Season with her cousin Gaetan and his glamorous wife Valerie. They will usher her into a glittering world of balls and find her a suitable husband. But Nina has a mind of her own, and talents that aren’t welcome in polite society. Can she be satisfied within its constraints?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: I rarely read romance novels, because I’m frustrated by the narrow paths they necessarily tread. In romance, half the point is seeing the tropes explored and taking joy in discovering how this couple will work things out. These days, I’m more interested in family and friendship; while I like a romantic subplot, it tends to leave me cold as the main event.

…but I liked this one. Like Hector and Nina, it took a while to win me over – but I have consumed the second half in an afternoon, twisting and yelling and ultimately wiping a little tear from my eye.

I spent the first half of The Beautiful Ones reading with gritted teeth, getting increasingly frustrated. I enjoyed the prose – I think Silvia Moreno-Garcia gets better with every book, and at this point I’ll read anything she writes – but I actively wanted Nina to just get the hell out of Loisail and leave the poisonous vipers to themselves. I couldn’t engage with a desire for the romance to somehow work out.

Either romance, in fact. I found Hector creepy, frankly (a decade obsessing about the girl that dumped you for the wealthy guy is not a good look), and his deceit made me wish him deep disappointment on every front. But I have time for redemption arcs (although I wasn’t sure he deserved one) and personal growth through learning experiences. And gosh, was it clear that Hector had much to learn – about himself and others. I still cheered when <SPOILER>it all went horribly wrong at Oldhouse, because it seemed like a chance for Nina to free herself and find someone better as she deserved.

Thankfully, I found Nina irresistible. She’s the down-to-earth girl from the country who stands to inherit a fortune, an amateur entomologist and voracious reader of romance novels and scientific journals (so, one of my favourite archetypes already: bookworm, clever, learned, into science, and not really bothered with this high society nonsense). She’s also a telekinetic, whose socially-inappropriate talent tends to get away from her when she’s emotional. She refuses to fear the things that have hurt her, and she has a heart of gold – you have to despise Hector for not noticing what a gem he’s toying with, and dislike Valerie for trying to change her.

Valerie Beaulieu – social goddess of Loisail and Hector’s former fiancée – is easy to dislike. She  has neither the brains of Diane de Tremontaine nor the poise of the Marquise, but she’s cut from the same manipulative cloth, which makes for despicable social shenanigans. And yet there’s room to have a little bit of sympathy for her. She is genuinely committed to her family and reviving their fortunes. It’s easy enough to see why she has grown so bitter over the years, even if you can’t forgive her for trying to inflict the same misery on Nina. Because while she doesn’t want Hector (she doesn’t want to ruin her unhappy but advantageous marriage), she doesn’t want anyone else to have him either. She certainly doesn’t want Nina to be allowed the freedom of choice that Valerie denied herself at the same age.

And this is where the second act won me over entirely. Absurdly, given my supposed boredom with tropes, the second she returned to Loisail under the supposed supervision of two scatty aunts, I was completely on-board. This is a Nina who will be able to be herself, out from under Valerie’s control. I was utterly absorbed from the second she bumped into Luc Lemy, knowing she was now free to make her own choices.

This requires the slow dance of the first act to set it up – you need to understand Hector and Valerie, and have an opinion on Luc and Etienne Lemy; you need to have developed affection for Nina. I also found I’d developed a healthy respect, and I really enjoyed the way she began to explore the intricacies of love vs lust and came to reflect on how dissatisfying the situations from her romance novels could be in real life. While I felt Hector’s emotional journey was a bit heavy-handed, Nina’s delighted me.

I appreciate some of the small touches along the way too, such as the rose scratches Valerie tries to conceal from herself, mirroring the wounds she refuses to acknowledge she carries on the inside. I was less appreciative of Valerie’s deterioration into desperation (her behaviour at the duel in particular struck an off note), but she’s not a woman used to not getting her own way, and she has pushed the stakes far too high. And it is in keeping with the rest of the third act: absurdly melodramatic, entirely theatrical, but nonetheless rather satisfying.

I have a couple of quibbles: I would have liked Nina to have had a friend / supportive character in her life (even her mother or sister having a bit more presence even if just through letter writing would have gone a long way). I’d like to have seen more of Gaetan, too, and not just through Valerie’s eyes. In their final scene there was a hint of a whole set of subplots and sadnesses in their marriage – maybe I’m just too keen to add context to a woman who is, ultimately, the villain of the piece.

But these are minor, personal biases. The Beautiful Ones is – unabashedly – a romance, and I was ultimately as invested in its outcome as any devoted seeker of a happy ever after. It’s also a lingering glance at what our choices cost us, and the value of self-reflection and self-acceptance.

I have a deeper regard for Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s writing and her versatility with each thing I read. She hasn’t convinced me to embrace romance as a genre, but I’ll follow her into whatever worlds she chooses to explore.

****

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.