The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
4.5 rounded up.
Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley
We are constantly told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that is because there is some truth to the statement. Tastes are different after all. But the only time that phrase is trotted out on a regular basis is when talking to someone who is not the standard of beauty (or even okay looks) in society. A bit too heavy, a bit too skinny (less common I know), a nose that is a bit wrong.
Society and people can be cruel to those who don’t met or even care to met beauty standards, ever changing beauty standards too. While currently, body shape might be a consistent, hair styles, dress styles, make-up, and such always seem to be changing.
And the people judged most harshly for not meeting such standards due tend to be women. This isn’t to say that men (and boys) don’t feel the pressure to. But can you name me a movie where an overweight, unattractive woman got the hot stud? Or how about that version of Beauty and the Beast where the beast female?
In part, this is because girls and women are bombarded with images from the start. As much as you love Disney movies, you have to acknowledge the princess mostly look like and barely have room for a stomach. Want a lower percentage, look at how many are not white. Do the same for pretty much any tv show, movie, or even singer.
Hell, the dancers on any dance show have been called fat by some jackass because they actually have hips.
We have ads that depict young girls dressing as adults. Not playing dress up but actually dress like they have double ds. We have clothes for young girls that say things like future trophy wife.
Clayton attacks society and culture’s obsession with beauty head on in this book.
The Belles takes place in a world where everyone is born grey. Th expectations to this seem to be the Belles, women (seemingly always women) have power. They are basically plastic surgeons who use magic (surgery is still painful, just done by magic). Every three years, a group of Belles is introduced to the court and then sent to severe the royal family and various houses. Camellia, as well as most of her five sisters, aspires to be the Royal favorite, to severe the royal family.
Hence the story starts.
At first, the novel seems to be standard YA. Cameilla is the most powerful of the current crop of Belles, she is a bit rebellious, and her closest rival is her closest friend. Of course, their friendship suffers in the competition to be the Royal Favorite. At the beginning, the only Belle that truly stands out besides Camellia who is telling the story, is her fellow Belle Edel who seems to have the most spirit.
But then Clayton does something that is absolutely brilliant. Usually in many YA and even in adult books, the heroine who tells the story is practically perfect. Clayton doesn’t do this. It’s true that Camellia is clueless in some places about her behavior, but the reader is aware of this. Clayton does this so well, so in part of the story is the mystery and part of it is rooting Camellia on to be a better person. Such change fits the character because there are flashes of it in the very beginning of the story.
This is also true about the world building which in the beginning seems a little confusing, but this is in part because of the Belles’ sheltered existence. Many times, both Camellia and the reader experience something for the first time. While the world is run by the idea of beauty, it is also a relatively open world – gay marriage, for instance, does seem to be allowed. At times, too, Camellia is aware of the different classes and different issues outside of her privilege position.
Slowly, she awakens to what her position really is. At first, one wonders if the Belles are really priestesses, but very quickly the parallels to slavery are shown, and Clayton does not really pull any punches with this connection. She may not be as direct as Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, but the point and setting are far different. Yet, Clayton does seem to draw in much in reference to actual historic slavery.
Another thing that send out in this book is the use of color. Everyone is born grey, and the skin color of a person can change. And before I go any farther in this paragraph, I need to point out a few things. One, I am a white woman who is overweight. Two, I never paid that much attention to people on the covers books until I became friends with Fountain Pen Diva on Goodreads. It would be fair to say that she woke me from my privilege and got me to notice how few people of color are on covers (she didn’t have to get me to notice how few people of color are in books as well, at least as the central figure). It was because her that I noticed this book. Clayton’s characters run the gamut of skin color, yet it is a legitimately varied existence. It isn’t like the all-white New York that seems to exist in so many forms of media. Camellia isn’t the only Belle (or central character) with dark skin, and all skin color, except grey, is shown to be equally admired and desirable by society. Clayton’s book is one of the few where I have seen this, Max Gladstone’s Craft books are another (maybe I am reading the wrong books). In many ways, this detail made me think of Coates’ comments about race.
Looks and race all in one book? And done well, too. Seriously, Clayton needs to win some awards by the end of the year. I give bonus points to Disney and Freeform for publishing this. And it passes the Bechdel test. This isn’t to say there isn’t a love triangle, but the ladies have more important things to worry about, like that mysterious crying.
Is The Belles a perfect book? No. I had some questions – for instance if the ruling line is matrilineal, then wouldn’t the Queen have lovers in addition to or even instead of the king – and the beginning of the book is a little slow, but with some very good, brave narrative choices. Still, despite the flaws, the book is quietly brilliant and stays with reader.
And I find myself waiting for a second book in a YA series.
And a new author to read.
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