“The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton

Rating – 3.5/5 stars

Overall – “The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton as an intriguing read. The premise (and the vibrant, colorful cover) are what immediately drew me in.

Orleáns is a world where beauty is prized above all else. According to the people’s mythology, the Sky God became jealous of how his wife, the Goddess of Beauty, spent more time with their children—humans—than him. As revenge, he turned all humans red-eyed, gray-skinned, and doomed to one day go crazy. These “ugly” humans, called the Gris people, had no hope until the Goddess of Beauty bestowed upon them a gift: the Belles. The Belles are young women born beautiful and with the power to turn others beautiful (albeit temporarily). When all Belles turn sixteen, they are presented at the palace, where the queen will assign different places to live and work for each of them. Camellia Beauregard and her five sisters are the only Belles in her generation, and each one wants to be chosen as favorite—the most powerful Belle, who lives at court and advises the queen and princess on beauty and fashion decisions. Camille loves her sister, but harbors a fierce desire to become the favorite. After navigating through disappointment, anger, and confusing secrets, she becomes the favorite—only to find out that life is not as rosy as she thinks. The princess slowly demands that she do more and more horrifying things. The queen begs Camille to use her powers in unintended ways to heal her other, comatose, daughter. And through all of this, Camille fights to figure out the mysteries of court—and of the Belles, where they come from, and what their real use is.

Let’s first talk about the premise for this book. The author encloses a letter to the reader at the back of the book talking about why she wrote the book. It’s obvious from the cover and the blurb on the inner jacket flap that the book is going to be focusing a lot on beauty. I think that the questions the author tried to explore in this book were “What is beauty?” and “Who defines what is beautiful?” These elements do come through in her writing; the societal and cultural background of the story clearly reveals to the reader that that the people of Orleans believe that beauty is the opposite of what they are born as. The whole premise of the book revolves around people who are born thinking of themselves as ugly, and are practically addicted to constantly undergoing plastic surgery to be accepted as beautiful by others. When put like that, the whole idea seems absurd and unnecessary. I feel like in this book, the author intended to mirror and exaggerate the faith people in our modern-day world have in the fact that if they try just a little bit harder—or spend a little more money paying for another surgery—they will be just as beautiful as the celebrities they see in the media.

It’s a theme that’s being talked about in real life as well; I think the author hoped that by exaggerating our reality just a bit more until it seemed crazy, readers would realize how flawed our perception of beauty is, and how each person has a different way of being beautiful. I feel like the main theme, while powerful and relevant to readers today, doesn’t really successfully come through in the book. The book describes the twists and turns of Camille’s court life and her relationships with her sisters after being split up. Later, her main problems include whether to help cure the unconscious princess, how to obey the awake princess’s demands to make those she is jealous of less beautiful, and her troubling feelings for a boy. The idea of beauty’s excessively important role in Orleans—and even our own society—comes through well when describing the setting. It’s all in the small things, such as how women completely change their body types and physiques every few months to keep up with the trends, or how beauty tokens to pay for treatments are extremely hard to procure, or even how the Belles have had to formulate a tea to serve as a painkiller for patients during surgery (yes, beauty IS pain, and a lot of pain at that). The details are subtle. The plot subtly suggests this theme, but readers have to be astute to pick up on this hidden message. I suppose this might be for the better; after all, there is some pride that comes with figuring out the theme of a complex story. Overall, I wasn’t quite satisfied with how well the message came through. While the main ideas are well conveyed in the backdrop, the actual story doesn’t seem to completely revolve around the idea of how beauty is given too much importance.

I may have ranted about the message of the story, but my other problem with this book is how passive the narrator is. She witnesses and is forced to perform many of horrible events—changing a woman’s face to make her look like a pig, for example—in this story. Camellia understandably tries to protect herself from the full force of the princess’s wrath; still, it’s hard not to judge her for letting other people make her do things and try to make amends later, even if she knows the demands aren’t ethical or the right thing to do. When her best friend is selected as the original favorite, Camellia wanted the position so badly that she can’t feel any happiness for Amber; instead, she’s angry and jealous. Thankfully, she moves past this phase. The ending is satisfying mainly because Camellia realizes the error in her ways and seeks to fix her mistake. It provides a hint of a promise that she’s changed, as most good protagonists are supposed to do. Although the plot arch is well constructed and the conclusion is intriguing but fulfilling, I still feel a little annoyed that Camellia was an indecisive narrator for so much of the book.

What I truly have to commend Dhonielle Clayton for is her world-building. Lately, I’ve been interested mostly in dystopian fiction, and setting is SO important there: is there a corrupt government? Is there a geographical reason why things are so bad? Is the world about to end? Although I wouldn’t quite classify this book as dystopian—the premise is a little less blatant and a little more magical than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, for instance—the world that this book is set in really affects how and why each character acts the way they do. I feel like one of the most important questions in a dystopian novel is whether there are cultural and social obligations driving each character’s actions. Ms. Clayton effectively presents Orleans as a vibrant society of people who are motivated by the attainment of their society’s idea of beauty, and how everyone—even the young Grises who haven’t had their first beautifying surgery yet—is affected by the compulsive need to be on trend and possess beauty. Without all of the subtle details I mentioned before that the author tucks in here and there, it would be much harder to understand the characters, and the plot arch of the story would be much less logical. Although I wish the plot had been more centered on Ms. Clayton’s beliefs, the way she paints the backdrop of a sparkling yet greedy Orleáns is well done. She doesn’t force the idea of beauty’s idea on us too much because she knows that most readers were raised that way, surrounded by icons and media that encouraged going through any length to look perfect. I think that she balances how much detail to add and how much to leave to imagination really well.

All in all, an intriguing story. I have some minor issues with how the book was constructed, but it was on the most part a satisfying read with a surprising ending. And who doesn’t like a surprise?