Title: Monstrous Beauty
Author: Elizabeth Fama
No. of Pages: 296
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
”Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences. Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.”
Thoughts: Elizabeth Fama uses the backdrop of Plymouth, Massachusetts and its rich history as the setting for her mermaid tale, Monstrous Beauty. Syrenka is a mermaid who leaves her life in the oceans deep for life with her beloved Ezra. Hester, with her love of history, has resigned herself to life without love rather than face an early and tragic death, as every other woman in her family. Through Hester’s historical research and interactions with the mysterious Ezra, the connection between the two women quickly unfolds. Secrets unravel, tragedy blossoms, and suddenly Hester is forced to choose between the life she expected versus the life she now wants.
Monstrous Beauty successfully flips back and forth between Syrenka and Ezra’s story and Hester’s, while the setting does so much to link the stories. It is a lot easier to imagine the possibility of mythical sea creatures in one of the first towns ever settled in America than it would be in something more modern and less connected to its historical roots. Each switch in time and character point of view is well-executed and clearly documented, so that there is no confusion by the reader. Confusion occurs elsewhere in the story but is never a result of the change in setting. Rather, the associated points between the two time periods, especially the physical locations, create a continuity to the story that does much to build that sense of antiquity and longevity that is essential to the overall story.
One of the story’s main flaws is the fact that Monstrous Beauty follows the same template as other popular fantasy young adult novels with very little variation. The girl falls inexplicably and instantly in love with a mysterious stranger. The parents are on the fringes of the story. The girl is extremely pragmatic and level-headed as compared to others her age. There is a best friend who complicates the perceived love triangle. Mystical things happen that make no sense until she opens her mind to the possibilities of magic around her. It is a successful template, which is why authors continue to use it. However, after years of the same, one wishes for something a bit more drastically different.
Another flaw is just how long it takes Hester to unravel the truth. For someone so intelligent and quick to solve historical puzzles, which is mentioned and shown by her actions several times throughout the story, she remains particularly dense when it comes to her own personal historical puzzle. It is frustrating for a reader to know the full mystery but have to continue to read as the heroine fumbles her way to the solution for many more pages. That sense of being in on the secret that works well in other mysteries is decidedly absent in Monstrous Beauty, and after a while, the entire plot becomes exasperating to the point of absurdity.
Yet, even when a reader is at one’s most aggravated, one cannot help but sympathize with Hester and marvel at her ability to continue to keep her head when a situation is at its craziest. Some young adult heroines all but lose their minds, or at least become act completely different, once the love interest enters the picture. Hester does this to some extent but not only does she recognize this, she actually takes pains to try to stop doing so. She feels guilty that she is not acting like herself and understands that her actions are somehow wrong. It is the one refreshing breath of change in an otherwise well-trodden plot path.
One cannot discuss Monstrous Beauty without discussing the mermaids. Syrenka and her sisters are more reminiscent of the mermaid depiction in the Harry Potter series than of The Little Mermaid. For some reason, or maybe because of their more feral, more animalistic portrayals, they are more realistic. Unfortunately, Ms. Hama does not spend a lot of time discussing their origins or history, and the story is the loser for this omission. A reader wants to know more about how their hierarchy, their magical abilities, the structure of their society. While a reader can understand that one’s lack of knowledge mirrors Hester’s own, some of the dangers and other scenarios in which Syrenka and then Hester find themselves would appear more dangerous and stressful to the reader if one had full knowledge of the mermaids and their rules.
Monstrous Beauty is a fast-paced revamp of the traditional mermaid myth. Even while it remains a beautiful story about sacrifice and love, the novel has decidedly darker, rather horrific undertones that remind readers that these mermaids are not the Disney version. These are creatures that are more similar to sharks and other sea-going predators than they are to humans. Therein lies their attraction though too. While much of the story follows a similar pattern as other fantasy YA novels in recent years, the few differences that exist make Monstrous Beauty enjoyable even as it remains somewhat forgettable.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to NetGalley and to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for my e-galley!