Rating: 8.1 (out of 10)
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s The Beautiful Ones offers readers a kaleidoscope of nostalgic trimmings – a splash of Austen, a dash or two of the Bronte Sisters, with an early modernist garnish. Set in a fantasy (alt history?) version of post-industrial France but dealing mainly with an aristocratic class resembling the landed gentry of the British, The novel’s plot centers around a nouveau riche entertainer, Hector Auvray, who returns home after many years abroad to rekindle an old flame, by way of the beautiful Valerie Beaulieu, who years before had broken off their secret engagement so she could marry into a wealthy family. In the present, Hector pretends to court Valerie’s cousin by marriage, Nina Beaulieu, but only as an excuse to be close to Valerie.
The magical wrinkle in all of this is that a small number of people in this society have telekinetic powers, Hector and Nina among them. High society considers telekinesis a vulgar subject, but Hector’s male privilege permits him to hone his natural talents into skills that make him a successful stage performer, who is then generally accepted by the upper class because of his wealth and fame. Nina is not so lucky. Her family regards her telekinetic abilities as a shameful nuisance, so therefore her skills remain unrefined, her powers asserting themselves only at the most inconvenient times. As a result, she is a bit of an outcast at a time (19 years old) when she is supposed to be “entering” society, but she manages to stay in good enough graces thanks to the indulgence of her rich cousin, Valerie’s husband Gaetan.
The Beautiful Ones is very successful as a straightforward genre exercise. While the story doesn’t shy away from Bronte-esque melodrama, it does so through the lens of Austen-esque psychological realism. This is especially welcome when the novel is dealing with the fantastical element of the story, which is presented in a grounded and ordinary way. The novel is perfectly plotted, and the shifting points-of-view offer the reader a rounded perspective of the main actors as the drama unfolds.
There is a kind of purity to Moreno-Garcia’s approach that works against the novel, an unwillingness to contaminate the proceedings with anything resembling a direct political or social commentary. The novel’s alternaFrance has motorcars and other novelties of the early industrialized world, so it is beyond me why, in some respects (such as the fact that the heroes have the luxury of not worrying about their finances while the villains are motivated by their lack of access to capital), the author seems unwilling to deconstruct “polite” society in the vein of the early modernists.
Despite some thematic ambiguities, The Beautiful Ones is exceptional in form, careful in its study of character and buoyed by Moreno-Garcia’s expressive prose and tightly managed storytelling. I don’t think it’s possible to read the book without rooting for its lovers to unite, or without being charmed by the elegant world the author has created.