I know everyone loves the Hush, Hush cover best, but imo this was the best YA cover of 2009.
I read Beautiful Creatures really slowly, over about 2 and a half weeks, because it's long and I have much less time for reading than I used to. Initially I absolutely loved it, and then, as always because I seem to be stuck in this role of instigator that makes it sometimes really hard for me to turn off my inner critic, I started questioning things, and I'm not sure how well the story bore up. I haven't read any other detailed reviews of B.C. so I'm not sure whether what twigged with me twigged with anybody else. But I do want to say that I *really, really loved* the experience of reading it. It's so rare that a book of any genre sustains and keeps me enthralled at that level for that long. I'm just not sure if it held up in the end. I *think* it did. Pretty sure it did, because I definitely plan on buying the sequel. But I have all kinds of thinky thoughts inside the cut, and some of them get a little critical - as I am wont to do with all things, for better or for worse.
Ahhh this got so long. In which I think too much and ramble about Southern culture. Full spoilers for Beautiful Creatures within.
Stuff I Loved:
- THE SOUTH. Stars in my eyes. 99% of the time I read books (like Sea Change last year, ugh, ugh, my rage) that are set in that nebulous locale known as "The South," and I'm just like NO YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG. (and I will say again that if you're going to get *one* thing wrong in your not-at-all well-researched book about the South, THAT ONE THING HAD BETTER NOT BE THE CONCEPT OF SWEET TEA. argh.)
The only time I've ever really felt like I was reading a book that got it, 1000%, was when I read Cold Sassy Tree--and then it was the biggest revelation to me ever, because it was like someone was holding a mirror up to my face of my entire childhood and going, "see? This is you, this is your culture, this is where you're from," and it was so true that I would, like, keep randomly bursting into tears of delight while I was reading, because, yes, yes, yes. And yes, obviously some parts are exaggerated for comic effect, and some parts are gone forever, but it was truth, and it was wonderful. Another perfect and beautiful example of this, of what I consider to be my South, is O, Brother, Where Art Thou. Like, you guys. Seeing outdoor revivals and tins of hair pommade and hearing it called "Wool's Worth's," just, YES. So many things, so many tiny details. And I want to hold them all to my heart forever. I grew up in the middle of a cotton field, and the nearest town was (still is) 10 miles away, and my great-grandaddy helped build the tiny church our road was named after, where my mom still teaches Sunday School. I grew up being dragged to fiddlers' contests and beauty pageants and berry farms and homecomings for cemeteries, and that's my world. I'm fiercely attached to it, with all its flaws, and it makes me so indescribably happy to see it represented to me in a recognizable way. And that happens so rarely, but when it does, I basically want to shout it to the skies.
Beautiful Creatures is Southern Gothic, so, to me, a lot of things that I recognize as pure South have been distorted, and more on that in a bit. But a lot of things haven't. The funeral food on the porch, the doorjam with generations of kids' measurements penciled in (we have one of those! I still get measured every time I go home), the mason jars, just, dozens of little details that made me so happy to see represented in a YA, finally. I love love love the authors for that, I can't tell you how much.
- Ethan and Lena. I heard somebody randomly describe this book yesterday as being "Twilight but with a male Bella," and I wanted to scream, lol. Ethan and Lena both are fully developed, questioning, active, fully agented characters in their own story. I had a crush on Lena from the moment she stepped onto the pages. She's like an older, hotter Stargirl (without the part where Stargirl is so cheesily obnoxious that she inspires me with cynical hipster rage and I just want to make her stop riding unicorns and do something actually useful, like start a GLSA, which sadly was probably not what Spinelli was going for). She's also terrified and vulnerable, but she's never weak. Ethan, on the other hand, is kind of a dopey idiot in a way that made me stop and go "Oh, Ethan, lol," in a few places; and I thought it was really telling that he kept urging her forward to discover her own secrets while willfully ignoring all his own. They balanced each other really well. As a narrator, I felt like Ethan was human, but he was sort of mildly everything, if that makes sense: he was mildly detached, mildly superior to the people around him, mildly in desperate need of escape, mildly still grieving about his mother's death. I never really felt things as intensely through him as I wanted to, but I also kind of liked the reliability of Ethan's soft, accepting narration. And it was good because there were so many plot twists coming at you in this book that if he'd reacted dramatically to all of them, lol, kids would be returning copies of this book due to motion sickness.
- The pacing. Aside from the bajillion plot revelations, the basic story of Beautiful Creatures developed really believably. I think part of the reason I enjoyed reading it so much is that I never felt like the story was flagging or moving ahead of me and my sloooow reading pace. And there was just so many tiny little pieces of plot to digest that the book a) needed to be that long to encompass them all, and b) needed to proceed at something of a leisurely stroll so you could process them all in good time. Of course, this occasionally meant that I'd be halfway through a scene before I twigged that something MAJOR was happening, but I blame Ethan's gentlemanly, accepting narration, lol, "Oh, huh, it looks like she's a Siren," and my own rusty reading comprehension skills. Mostly, though, I just loved reading this book; holding it in my hands, being able to stick an actual bookmark in it (i haven't used bookmarks in ages!) because it was so hefty, pondering it through the day, reading bits and pieces here and there and always feeling the flow from where I left off. It was just really lovely.
- Ridley!!!!! I freaking loved Ridley. And then halfway through the book my brain cast her as Adrienne Palicki, and there was no going back after that. I wanted to smack Ethan every time he talked about how awful she was. Look, if my badass older cousin were throwing me parties and sticking up for me after I was bullied at the prom, I would not call it awful or "monstrous," no matter how creepy her eyes might look skjf;ad. Ridleyyyyyyy.
- Amma and her charm-working. Maybe it's because traditionally portrayals of the Gothic South have led me to expect a parade of voodoo workers and black magic and rhymes chanted in murky backwater swamps, but I was totally down with her whole thing, and that trek through the cypress wood swamp at midnight. Where do I sign up for more of this! I found that version of the magic in this story's universe was way more interesting and fun than the gazillion sections about the book of moons and the claiming, which all felt really redundant. not to mention funkily spelled. (is funkily a real word? it is now. ADVERBS! \o/ )
(Also, I want to give a shout-out to the School Board meeting, because it's very much Atticus-Finch-versus-the-mob, even if it's kind of hamstrung and cheesy, I enjoyed the obvious throwback to the lynch mob scene in To Kill A Mockingbird--with the subversion that the thing that reinstates stability over the town is not reminding them of their common humanity, but threatening to reveal all their secrets. It's like TKAM 2: Scout and Boo Radley join forces.)
Stuff I'm not so sure about:
- this whole 'i knew i loved you before i met you' gig. I've never seen this written anywhere, by anyone, where it didn't seem like shorthand for 'we don't have time to write a relationship developing naturally, so we'll jumpstart the dynamic by telling the two of you that you're *going* to fall in love with each other.' i hated
- uh, Kitchen? was this explained and I missed it? I am really not sure that when you are living in a dilapidated plantation home with direct roots to slavery, that you want your food source to be an invisible/magical/unseen entity that apparently never leaves the kitchen? I was so confused. Are they being served by house elves? I thought it was all magic, but then Lena referred to Kitchen as "the staff," meaning there were actual entities??? idk i am probably way overthinking this but I found it all quite confusing and potentially troubling!
- this book's depiction of motherhood???? I just. idk. I basically thought all the women in this book were fantastic. I loved them all! I loved Ethan's mom because she was amazing! I loved Link's mom because she was just like every other Southern Crusader for Jesus I know, lol, and I thought she was terrifically human, which made me very ..... at the end. Ethan's line about her lying there as if she were "inconsequential human trash" just made me stop and go, "what, book, what." I also loved Link's mom because she had that awesome line about men being the weaker sex, which really means that obviously I loved *Lena's* mom because she was a) badass and b) CAME BACK FOR HER DAUGHTER. And, okay, yeah, she was murderous, but I totally bought that she wanted her daughter to join her so they could have badass sexy mother-daughter dark times together, WHAT IS SO WRONG WITH THAT, WHY ARE YOU ALL LOOKING AT ME FUNNY. :( Okay, so I guess the whole 'not wanting to die' part was another major factor. But basically there was this moment where Ethan describes Sarafine as (this is badly paraphrased,) "attempting to look hurt, I guess because she was actually Lena's mother," and I. I think that I'm not comfortable with the vague feelings I'm getting from all this of motherhood-as-artifice. There's also Aunt Del and her everywhere-at-once-ness that allows two of her children to basically become completely unknown to her, while she's struggling to remain in the present; there's the image of Mrs. Lincoln basically being an empty vessel; Sarafine is presented to us as all artifice; Lena's grandmother is barely in the story; only Ethan's mom seems real and present, and she's the only one who's actually dead. I think this might be a really clever commentary on the part of the writers, or a really unsettling unconscious theme. Either way, I'm not sure how I feel about it.
- wtf, Ethan Wate. If someone had just told me that my mom was murdered, I would spend the next ten years screaming for answers until somebody gave them to me. How could you just go with the subject change at that point? See, again, "Ethan's casually accepting narrative pov," but sjf;lsjkd did you miss the part where it was implied that your mom was murdered? Or were you just distracted by all the--
- PLOT TWISTS. SKDFJSDLF. I don't want to put this in the "dislike" category, because by the end I was just lauging, but this book was full of - not so much major plot twists as much as an ongoing, pellet-like barrage of newly revealed plot components. And some of them felt weirdly timed (I still don't buy Macon 'fessing up to Ethan about being an Incubus just because he got caught in Ethan's room), some of them felt unnecessary (the book of moons, aka GIANT MACGUFFIN!), others were inexplicable (why did Amma tell Lena she had "the love of two families," and that would help her carry the curse through? Didn't Genevieve also have the love of two families, namely her own and Ethan Prime's?), some (Ridley being dark-lite, Macon being darker-than-expected) were too predictable to be revelations, and some (Mrs. Lincoln, Ethan's dad not actually writing the book ahhhhhhhh *cue resurgence of decade-long Shining-induced freakout*) I didn't see coming at all. But by the end they were almost overwhelming.
And because some of the major plot elements were left completely unaddressed by the conclusion of the novel, I felt kind of like I'd been receiving this steady fusillade of minor distractions to keep me from noticing in the end that - OH YEAH, WE STILL DON'T KNOW WHAT POWER, IF ANY, ETHAN HAS. Beautiful Creatures >:(
- LACK OF SEX. lol. The typical out-of-control feeling that every teenager knows so well, that few books have ever, imo, captured better than Twilight, was just very, very vague in this book, and I think that is part of Ethan's laidback narration. The big ~revelation~ that they couldn't have sex because of (uh, basically, insert the Clex fandom here) was completely anti-climactic considering that they kind of never really seemed to be all that into sex anyway. Which was great, for what it was worth. I am totally down with teenagers not wanting to have sex! But the introduction of ~physical incompatibility~ brings into play all sorts of questions about the nature of love: does it have to have a sexual outcome (even, a heterosexual one?) to still be true love? What I mean is: there's an opportunity here (in the sequel, I assume) to reject the idea that true love is tied up with the idea of saving yourself for the perfect sexual encounter - or that love and sex are tied together at all. What I fear will happen is that the physical incompatibility will be played up as a major relationship conflict, with Lena being all, you don't want me, Ethan, we can't be together! some more, and Ethan being all, it doesn't matter, I want you no matter what! some more. Dear authors, please don't do that.
Stuff I absolutely hated:
- oh, oh, book, really? I'm not trying to keep tabs or anything, but Marian is kind of the only black woman in this podunk town, so even if she did come from somewhere else, "exotic" is really, really not the way to describe her. *headdesk*
- the @$#$S!S%!!! POINT OF VIEW SWITCH. oh my god. I got to that page, did a double take, said aloud, "WHAT! THAT DID NOT JUST HAPPEN," and then glared furiously at the book while furiously twittering about my rage. sdfkasd;f.
Just. If I had been writing an ~epic fanfic~ from one character's perspective the whole time, and then ten pages from the end I switched point of view, my beta-readers would all laugh me right out of google docs. HOW COME I CAN'T GET AWAY WITH THAT SHIT BUT BESTSELLING AUTHORS KAMI GARCIA AND MARGARET STOHL CAN? LIFE IS UNFAIR! argh, and also, since it turns out that Ethan never knows, by the conclusion of the novel, what happened while he was unconscious, and presumably part of the conflict/tension of the sequel will involve him finding out, there was no real need for us as an audience to know at this point. In fact, while I am, granted, quite vexed about having to wait til October for the sequel, I would have preferred to have had it left unanswered, a giant question mark hanging over Ethan's survival and Macon's death, so that the answers are revealed to us along with Ethan. It was just a really clumsy awkward moment that seemed completely unnecessary, and it was totally beneath what was for the most part a well-written and engrossing story. <3
- slut-shaming/mean girls/sizeism. I've reached a point where I just have a giant kneejerk NO, NO, JUST NO reaction to this, especially in YA lit. When I was young I participated in beauty pageants. When I was older, probably 20% of the girls I knew did. I know what it's like to have only 2 choices for any kind of formal dress: slinky sequins or taffeta and lace. And it's not just that, as per usual with every book ever, it seems, Every Other Girl But The Right One was coded as "shallow, superficial, fake blonde, cheerleading, dieting, conformist, conservative, in-crowd bitch;" it was that there was a hint of cultural superiority over that kind of girl. That kind of girl was Southern, unlike Lena, who wasn't originally from Gatlin even though her family was, and Ethan, whose family taught him to stand apart by teaching him not to "drop his G's". More on that in a minute. The Mean Girls were in abundance and they were easily manipulated, easily swayed by mob mentality, and they were all coded as a distinct type of Southern belle: the pageant-going, makeup-wearing, faux-hospitality-bearing beauty queen. I AM SO OVER THAT. I was over it last year when Sea Change (the only other YA i've read recently set in the South) did the exact same thing with their non-heroine girls. At least the mean girls in Beautiful Creatures were loyal to each other, although the book wasn't really about to acknowledge any of their selling points.
There's one point when Ethan points out the girls in the mermaid sequin dresses, and then really scathingly basically says, "Those are the hos who end up with babies before they graduate." Seriously. Seriously, Ethan? If your momma were alive, I really hope she'd make you wash your mouth out with soap for that.
I also really hope this is one trope that they subvert in book 2, because as it was, I wasn't buying that this part of the narration was only part of Ethan's ignorant boy perspective. And even if it was, it doesn't make it okay. There's another scene where one Mean Girl gets the back of her dress torn off, ala the Parent Trap, and Ethan gloats because
- The (Ignorant) South.
Oh, Ethan. Ethan had so much urban liberal white privilege, even if he was a homegrown country boy. He wasn't just set apart from the town, but from its inherent Southernness. His parents made sure he didn't speak with a Southern accent, he turns his nose up at every part of the town that's not the library, he thinks Amma's superstitions are foolish, and he despairs at his own heritage for making him a part of the DAR meetings and the Sisters of the Confederacy meetings and the war re-enactments and the (everywhere implied, but never stated) racism of the town.
I grew up in very rural Tennessee, and so it's very possible that I'm twigging to some of these things because I didn't live deep *enough* in the South for them to ring true to me; but so much of this book was culturally exactly like the South I know and love, the To Kill A Mockingbird South, referenced repeatedly throughout the book, that when the rest didn't stick, it felt really distorted. The Gothic South is a ruined place of history in this story, a kind of a paranormal Gone With the Wind hybrid. It's not romanticized, exactly, but the ways in which the scars of the civil war are felt in my South are completely different from the way they're felt in the South of Beautiful Creatures. For one thing, I've never heard anyone, ever, unironically refer to it as the War for Southern Independence. And while there's plenty of confederate flag-hanging in my South, it has more to do with outright racism and modern cultural conflict than with Civil War Reenactments and a sense of loyalty to the past. The (rural, white, small-town) South of Beautiful Creatures is a South that's attempting to cling to its plantation-era ways, attempting to derive a kind of cultural elegance from its fallen past. It feels more like the South of Flannery O'Conner and Eudora Welty than the South of (me and) Harper Lee. My (rural, white, small-town) South has more or less given up on regretting the Civil War and is still recovering from the Depression, much less the civil rights movement. My South is a place of cotton gins and soybean fields, bluegrass and elvis, and cross-burnings on lawns that no one talks about. The South of Beautiful Creatures hasn't unwound that far; Ethan jokes about cross-burnings at one point, but Gatlin is still practicing denial as far back as 1865. My South is modern redneck; my South is Friday Night Lights. The South of Beautiful Creatures is Tennessee Williams meets Anne Rice.
So when Ethan condemns The South, when he refuses to hang up the confederate flag for his aunts, when the Mean Parents reject Marian for her "Harvard learning," when his family thumbs his nose at the town for showing them fake Southern hospitality, it all just seems like such a disappointingly easy, stereotypical cliche -- even more disappointing because the mentality is basically fuckthesouth-- except the South he and his family are waxing superior over doesn't exist, at least not to me. There's enough of it there that I recognize and love to make me overjoyed, because believe me, it's a sight better than any Southern depiction I have read in ages and ages, and that makes me very happy. But it's a false dichotomy. Ethan's liberal democratic free-speech loving family is fighting the good fight against a myth--an urban liberal myth that casts the South in a state of unwashed, unlearned Otherness. (And yes, the ironies abound; and I am no Southern apologist.) But it's possible to embrace Southern culture and still fly your liberal flag high, without setting yourself apart from everything around you. I kept thinking, as I read, 'could it be that maybe everyone in town kept your family at arm's distance because they thought you all put on airs?" Because, uh. Ethan's family totally does. They're ~writers~ so they're automatically more sensitive/learned/aware/progressive than everyone around them, sighhhh. (Ask me, sometime, how I feel about ~writers/English majors/creative artists~ being used as universal shorthand for ~different from the mainstream,~ lol. Because English isn't a popular degree, NOT AT ALL! oh, literature, i am not cut out to critique you because I hate everything, IT'S NOT YOU, IT'S ME.)
The tragedy of the South isn't that it's a once-beautiful land wasted by war, left to wallow in cultural ignorance and its own institutionalized racism, a cautionary tale for centuries to come. To me, the tragedy of the South is that it is still a place of beauty, brilliance, and vibrant heritage, whose complete and terrible institutionalized racism permanently blights the entire culture. There's a fine line between celebrating that cultural heritage and exploiting it. I'm not completely sure that Beautiful Creatures doesn't, ultimately, cross it.
Stuff I'm looking forward to in the sequel:
- learning what the heck kind of power Ethan has, anyway
- learning how his mom died adsfkjdkajsk
- seeing all the things I ranted about above subverted. Seriously, I want Emily and Savannah to throw down and kick ass next book, because CHEERLEADING IS FIERCE, goddammit, and also in my head they are totally crushing on each other. I HAVE FAITH IN YOU, BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS! Also can we please get some more characters up in here who aren't white, because honestly.
- Ethan's dad coming out of his funk and being awesome, and also hopefully we will learn what his mom has to do with the Caster community, and why the Wate family can't leave, and WHAT KIND OF POWER ETHAN HAS. ahem.
- watching the Holy Rollers improve--drastically, I hope! :D
who else has read this book?! Can we talkkkkkkkk about it omg