by Renée Ahdieh
In 1872, New Orleans is a city ruled by the dead. But to seventeen-year-old Celine Rousseau, New Orleans provides her a refuge after she’s forced to flee her life as a dressmaker in Paris. Taken in by the sisters of the Ursuline convent along with six other girls, Celine quickly becomes enamored with the vibrant city from the music to the food to the soirées and—especially—to the danger. She soon becomes embroiled in the city’s glitzy underworld, known as Le Cour des Lions, after catching the eye of the group’s leader, the enigmatic Sèbastien Saint Germain. When the body of one of the girls from the convent is found in the lair of Le Cour des Lions, Celine battles her attraction to him and suspicions about Sèbastien’s guilt along with the shame of her own horrible secret.
When more bodies are discovered, each crime more gruesome than the last, Celine and New Orleans become gripped by the terror of a serial killer on the loose—one Celine is sure has set her in his sights . . . and who may even be the young man who has stolen her heart. As the murders continue to go unsolved, Celine takes matters into her own hands and soon uncovers something even more shocking: an age-old feud from the darkest creatures of the underworld reveals a truth about Celine she always suspected simmered just beneath the surface.
I received an eARC of The Beautiful from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Why do I do this to myself? I had a feeling The Beautiful might not be for me – even though I read and enjoyed the Twilight books in my teens, I’ve never really been into vampire stories – but I so wanted to give it a chance because so many authors have stayed clear of vampires since Twilight‘s rise and fall.
The Beautiful has been marketed as the rebirth of YA vampire novels, and even though vampires aren’t my favourite fantastical/paranormal creatures, this book caught my attention because of it’s setting: 19th century New Orleans.
I love me some historical fiction, especially if it has a speculative twist, and New Orleans is a place I desperately want to visit, so I was ready to be whisked away to a world of blood and carnivals. With its fairly Twilight-ish cover, I was pretty sure this one wasn’t going to be a new favourite (though I’d’ve loved to be pleasantly surprised!) but I was ready for a fun, self-aware story. And that’s not what I got.
First thing’s first, I don’t think Ahdieh’s writing style is for me. This is the first book of Ahdieh’s I’ve read, so if I’d read previous books by her I probably wouldn’t have requested this one. I can see why a lot of people do like her writing style, but even for me it was a little too flowery and sometimes she over-explained which completely ruined the metaphors she was trying to make, so my not being a fan of the writing style has a lot to do with why I disliked this novel.
Unfortunately I thought the plot and the characters were all a bit of a mess, too.
Dressmaker Celine Rousseau is one of several young women who travels to a convent in New Orleans where the nuns will help them find work and also make good matches for themselves. Celine is running away from her previous life in Paris, but there are other women, such as Pippa from Yorkshire (my neck of the woods!), who are travelling to America to start new lives for themselves because there’s nothing waiting for them back home.
We know from the get-go that Celine is hiding a dark secret, and we soon learn that she killed a man in self-defense when he tried to sexually assault her. This being the 19th century I could totally believe that Celine would be scared to tell anyone what had happened – 200 years since this period of history many women still aren’t believed when they tell their stories – and I could buy why she would want to run away and start a new life.
What bothered me is that Celine calls herself a ‘monster’ throughout the entire book. Her guilt doesn’t match who she is any of the rest of the time, because throughout most of the novel Celine presents herself as a very typical YA heroine; she’s naturally stunningly beautiful, she’s not afraid to say what she really thinks and she stands up for herself whether she’s confronting a man or a woman. That made it difficult to believe that she could think of herself as a ‘monster’ for killing a man she knows was trying to sexually assault her.
If she was a different kind of heroine, if this was a story about Celine having to learn that what this man tried to do to her was wrong and that she’d been conditioned to think that she’d led him on, then it would make more sense, but this didn’t. She doesn’t have any remorse for what she did (nor should she) and she does acknowledge that she was only standing up for herself (and I completely agree with her), but it made all these ‘there’s a darkness in me, alas I am a demon incarnate!’ moments just plain eye-roll-worthy.
(Okay so she never actually says that, but you catch my drift.)
In other parts of the novel, though, Celine was an outright snob. At one point she’s invited to a party with the theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Celine is a huge fan of Shakespeare, but when she arrives at the party and sees people dressed as random fae creatures, such as satyrs, she says: ‘Had they even seen or bothered to read the play?’
You SNOB, Celine. It’s a party. Lighten up!
When she arrives at the convent the Mother Superior asks Celine to assist one of the other women with teaching the children and asks if she’ll teach them French, and Celine believes that being asked to teach the children French is the Mother Superior’s way of trying to ‘shame her’.
Um, why? You’re French, you’re the perfect person to teach these children French. Get over yourself.
Later, Celine meets a new friend who confides in her that she’s queer and Celine immediately assumes that it’s this woman’s way of telling her that she fancies her. Are you serious, Celine? To Ahdieh’s credit the friend in question points out that Celine is being a narcissist, but it just makes her so unlikeable – particularly to me. A friend of mine came out when we were in school and the amount of people who said they were fine with it ‘as long as she didn’t fancy them’ was gross. Celine was told something personal about someone else and managed to make it about herself.
To be honest, that’s what this whole novel is. This whole book is Celine making all the drama about herself.
This friend that Celine makes is a member of Le Cour des Lions, New Orleans’ mysterious underworld, and Celine soon begins to suspect that they might have something to do with a series of gruesome murders that have been occuring in the city. I was so excited to follow a 19th century murder mystery with vampires, but nothing’s really offered to the readers so we have a chance to figure out whodunnit; we just have to sit back and watch Celine and the people she meets do very little until another character we don’t really care about dies.
Particularly at the beginning of the novel, when our three major characters are introduced, the scenes felt as though they stretched on forever. As well as Celine, we meet Sèbastien Saint Germain of Le Cour des Lions and Detective Michael Grimaldi.
That’s right, kids. It’s a love triangle.
Michael is incredibly hard to believe. There’s no way a detective investigating a series of murders would express an interest in courting a woman who’s a suspect in the murder, because Celine just happens to be nearby when one of her fellow women from the convent is killed. Sèbastien is also a suspect, and Celine herself is convinced he has something to do with it, but that doesn’t stop her from swooning over him.
Considering her own history, I found it kind of gross that she was interested in pursuing a relationship with a man she’s fairly certain has something to do with a series of violent murders of women.
Out of the two of them, Celine does have more chemistry with Sèbastien than Michael (I just found Michael incredibly irritating) but their relationship was kind of ridiculous. Literally about three hours after she meets Sèbastien properly, Celine thinks, ‘She’d never heard him laugh like that before’.
You’ve known him for three hours, Celine. There are a lot of things you haven’t heard him do.
And naturally, because there’s a love triangle, it turns out Sèbastien and Michael were childhood friends but now they’re enemies because they fell out over a girl. SNORE. This is incredibly frustrating from a novel that keeps trying to be a feminist novel; Celine (rightfully) hates that the best thing she can hope for is to make a good match and have children, rather than to set up her own business and be a successful dressmaker in her own right. That message doesn’t really work, though, when you fall back on tropes like that.
In fact the two characters who had the best chemistry in this novel were Sèbastien and Michael, so if Ahdieh could maybe just make the next book in the series queer that’d be great. One of the problems, though, is that we never really learn enough about Michael or Sèbastien to care about why they’re no longer friends. We do have some chapters from Sèbastien’s point of view, but they don’t start popping up until about halfway through the book which is a little jarring.
We have a few chapters from the point of view of our murderer, too, but they’re flowery, Bond villain-ish passages that I couldn’t find threatening. My big problem with this whole novel was that I just didn’t care. I didn’t care why the villain was doing what they were doing – and in all honesty, when we discover why the murderer is doing what they’re doing, none of the earlier murders made any sense to me – and I didn’t care if any of the protagonists succeeded.
Sadly, for me, this novel was all style and no substance. I feel like I’m being really mean and I don’t want to be, because there are good things about this novel – particularly how racially diverse it is – but Celine doesn’t even learn about vampires until about 90% of the way through the book. Don’t market a book as a vampire book, and then have barely any vampires in it.
I like my reviews to be honest so I have to be honest, and sadly this book was a flop for me and I’m so disappointed. If you’re already a fan of Ahdieh you’ll probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did – I do think Ahdieh’s writing style had a lot to do with my enjoyment of this – but personally I think this book has been marketed as a refreshing YA vampire story, only to fall into all of tropes that put readers off YA vampire stories in the first place.