I’m gonna preface this by saying that I’m sure there are tons of readers who love this book, who just adore this Belle Epoque-inspired fantasy romance novel. And I’m glad for readers who find joy and comfort in its pages. But if you, like me, find shitty historical romance tropes utterly tiresome to the point of frustration, then please do read on as I complain about how, as in the perennial classic subReddit Am I The Asshole?, Everyone Sucks Here. Not even Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s delicately tuned writing, a convincing pastiche of Georgette Heyer and her ilk, can save this book from being a deep disappointment.
I mean, I can get over the absolutely ridiculous idea that telekinesis — or psychokinesis as it’s called here — is viewed merely as sport for the lower classes, and that Hector Auvrey, our “hero”, has made a fortune from entertaining with it but has never been conscripted by an army. And I can get over how that and an altered geography are the only fantastical elements in this otherwise bog standard historical romance. I simply cannot get over the weird misogyny underlying everything in this book, especially with poor Valerie.
Here’s a precis: Hector and Valerie were once engaged to be married, and he went abroad to make his fortune. She said she’d wait, but after several months? years? of withstanding the pressure from her impoverished, if noble family, she finally agreed to marry the wealthy, dull Gaetan Beaulieu, in hope of reviving her family’s fortunes. A decade passes and Hector, having amassed his riches, returns to Loisail to fling his wealth in Valerie’s face. But how to get close to her family? He decides he’ll start by courting Gaetan’s unsophisticated cousin, Nina, in an effort to ingratiate himself into the Beaulieu household. Nina falls for worldly, handsome Hector like a ton of bricks, so when she discovers that he loves Valerie — who rebuffs him because she’s fearful of the love she bears him, a love that would cause her to repudiate reputation and good sense to have him — Nina is understandably heartbroken. Only Hector then realizes that he actually loves Nina. And Valerie is pissed to discover this, so decides she’s going to do whatever it takes to keep them apart.
It’s weird because Ms Moreno-Garcia does a really good job at first of sympathetically portraying Valerie, forced by her family to marry a man who does the bare minimum to help them, instead lavishing her with expensive gifts that she can’t convert into funds to help float her relatives. Gaetan doesn’t care about Valerie’s interests, whines when she has migraines that cause her to back out of social engagements — that he huffily refuses to attend solo because he’s apparently a huge baby — and spoils his own cousins in sharp contrast to hers. When this idiot finally realizes that Valerie never loved him, he exiles her from Loisail, and we’re supposed to feel vindicated, like her entire life hasn’t been one long string of punishments already. And yeah, she does go over the top in trying to marry Nina off in a way that will benefit her own family, and to punish Hector for having the temerity to be in love with someone else, but the latter especially felt less organic than a “how can we make readers hate the ex-girlfriend?” device. You know, maybe romance novels don’t fucking need cliched female villains. Maybe, if we’re writing a romance novel about telekinetics, we can also stretch the expectations of genre readers by not having the ex go from restrained, tragic figure to vulgar, shrieking harpy.
And oh sweet babby Jebus, I wanted so much to like Nina, but all her “I’m not like other girls” bullshit was only in the service of the romance plot. I spent the first 70% of the book desperately hoping that she’d kick Hector to the curb and go be a badass entomologist who’d later fall in love with someone worthy of her, once she’d matured and gone through a few more heartaches. But nope, she bucks convention primarily to choose Hector, who is one of the least interesting sopwit leads of a romance novel I’ve ever had to endure. I’m still not entirely sure why he loves Nina. I think it’s a combination of her long, pretty hair and the fact that she’s the only eligible woman available for him to imprint on when he falls out of love with Valerie. Since Nina is also justifiably rejecting him at the time, the idiot gets into another cycle of stubbornly pursuing a woman who’s told him to leave her alone. What that guy needs is therapy, not an ingenue wife.
Anyway, this was an extremely frustrating read, and probably not the best way to begin my experience with Ms Moreno-Garcia’s oeuvre. I’m hoping the two other novels I have scheduled of hers to review this year are far less infuriating, as I’ve heard good things about several of her other works.
The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia was published April 27 2021 and is available from all good booksellers, including