Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Reviewed by Noelle: September 4, 2012
YAA received an ARC for review from the publishers
Published September 4, 2012 bby Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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 A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

The Mermaid by William Butler Yeats

Syrenka, an immortal creature of the sea has learned the hard way that loving a human can have catastrophic consequences but when she meets Ezra, a naturalist in 19th century Plymouth, Massachusetts, she dares to dream of a life shared together and is willing to sacrifice anything for the chance.  Hester, a 21st century teenager has begun to suspect that the affliction causing generations of mothers in her family to die within weeks of childbirth isn't so much a genetic defect as it is a curse.  When Hester begins to research her hunch, she uncovers much more than she could ever anticipate.

Yes, Monstrous Beauty is a story about mermaids, but it's also a story about love, sacrifice and the unexpected repercussions they create.  It's about how something beautiful can spawn something so wretchedly tragic that it echoes in time for centuries.  

There was a delicious undercurrent of creeeeeepy in Fama's writing, a feeling I described akin to listening to the Jaws theme.  You knew something was surfacing, but what? And would the damage be lost limbs and carnage or just peeing your pants in false alarm?  Fama doesn't shy away from darkness or violence and horrible things happen to characters in an nondiscriminatory manner.  No one is safe from tragedy or physical peril.

There were several times while reading that I wondered if the story could end happily for anyone involved.  It would be so easy to understand why Hester might be doomed to repeat Syrenka's calamitous mistakes because although some of the tragedies of Monstrous Beauty were perpetuated by hate, a majority of the destruction was motivated by love---sometimes short-sighted and selfish love, sure--but love nonetheless.  

The history-rich setting, including Burial Hill and the details of Hester's job as a historical reenactor added additional depth to the already dark mythology and almost tangibly oppressive atmosphere. However, the construct of the plot (Hester is not privy to the flashbacks to Syrenka's story) placed the reader several steps ahead of Hester for much of the book and it could be exceedingly frustrating when Hester unwittingly waltzed into dangerous situations or failed to pick up on things the reader has long since guessed.  But just when I was about to throw my hands in the air and plead, "Get with it already, Hester!" Fama added enough suspense and surprises to bring the story home with a satisfying smash.  

Rating: 3.5/5 stars.


  1. Heh, I will never be able to get the Jaws theme out of my head now when I think of this book! I loved this one, I'm glad you enjoyed it, too. :)

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    1. Hehe--I may have yelled STAY OUT OF THE WATER once or twice to good ol' Hester. --N

  2. This is a beautiful review Noelle, I've seen so many mermaid books around lately but this seems to have the most praise surrounding it. I can't wait to get my hands on a copy!

    1. Thanks Jasprit! This was my first mermaid book but I think I chose well haha. --Noelle

  3. I didn't comment but after you posted this on Tuesday I immediately checked it out from my library. Your description of it reminds me a bit of The Brides of Rollrock Island which I loved recently. I really hope this is the mermaid novel that finally does it right!

    1. I keep seeing Brides mentioned but haven't really looked into it yet. I'll have to get on that :) Looking forward to what you think of Monstrous Beauty Catie! --N

  4. I keep seeing this all over and I have an ARC from Netgalley so I know I NEED to pick it up RIGHT NOW!! I have been so underwhelmed by mermaid books lately so I am glad that everyone is loving this!!

    1. Yes! You must check it out! I don't have much to compare it to mermaid-book-wise but I was impressed. Thanks for reading/commenting! --N

  5. So glad you liked this one. I was not a huge fan of Hester, so that made this book tank for me a bit. It did have a very creepy undercurrent though and that I liked a lot.


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