To say that The Beautiful Ones is different from all Silvia Moreno-Garcia's works does a disservice to her: everything she has done is remarkably and admirably different. She is a chameleon of genre, taking on YA coming-of-age (Signal to Noise ), sexy urban vampires (Certain Dark Things ), and now Regency drama with skill and subversion.
The titular Beautiful Ones are the ruling aristocracy of a country not of this world, but one that exists in most of our imaginations, the Britain we know better from BBC dramas than history books. The only addition is a bit of magic—telekinesis, but of a minor sort, and mostly accepted as a parlor trick, and certainly not performed in the right sort of parlors. The Beautiful Ones do not care for magic that comes so easily; they prefer the magic that money, titles, and gossip can produce. Generally unwilling to be useful, these Beautiful Ones satisfy themselves with intrigue, and the greatest among them is Valerie Beaulieu. Valerie's circle is strained, however, by the presence of her niece, Antonina, and the handsome suitor Hector, who come to her for very different but equally perilous reasons.
Valerie is a dog in the manger, and despises her niece for desires she herself once had. She is cruel, but her life and her family have made her that way, and so it is hard not to also feel pity and admiration for her iron will and the tiny measure of independence she has clawed out for herself. She becomes, in the end, a little villainous and therefore a little less complex, but until then she is a woman defying morality in her deep complexity. Judging her is difficult; appreciating her is easy.
She is both beautiful and a cultivator of beauty, but not a hedonist and not even an aesthete. Rather, she uses and clings to beauty as one of the few weapons in her arsenal. So often people enjoy and dismiss the sumptuous design of period pieces (especially televised ones) in the same breath, loving it only as a marker of temporal exoticism. It is costume, it is merely pretty or merely a tool to expose details of plot or character. No. What I love about this book is that it draws attention to aesthetics as a central aspect of power, not just an adornment on it.
Aesthetics are a neglected aspect of so many other domains—politics and economics and theology—but not here. What Moreno-Garcia does is nudge it more toward the fore, exploring how the Beautiful Ones assert (or fail to assert) their rule over each other by way of aesthetic captivation.
Valerie’s control is absolute and all-encompassing, extending to wherever she is seen. Antonina, her country bumpkin niece and foil, lacks even the desire for such control. She does not bother much to be conventional—to be attractive—and instead pursues what she finds attractive: entomology, telekinetics, and Hector. She acts out of emotion and not calculation, and loves the jewel-toned beetles of her wild country home more than real jewels. Her inability to understand or accept conventional standards makes her profoundly unfit for keeping company with the Beautiful Ones, yet she is the brightest point in this shimmering tale, full of a vitality that surpasses the precisely negotiated beauty of high society.
The two women are already at odds; a man does not come between them to create anything quite so straightforward as a love triangle. He only complicates their already fraught relationship by throwing in his own complicated relationship to beauty and power. Hector’s attractiveness, like his wealth, is earned. The elegance of his manners and the attractiveness of his face are able to secure what wealth alone cannot: namely a place in society. Valerie's husband, who is by contrast moneyed but not nearly so attractive, had to marry Valerie to fully consolidate his power and qualify it as Beautiful. Titles and wealth, those are important, but taste, taste is the all-important pillar that stabilizes the whole pedestal on which they all stand.
Valerie and Hector are devoted to appearances, willing victims of it, while Antonina is only a dupe. Yet only Antonina is willing to risk actual enjoyment, and this contrast makes yet another interesting conflict for the characters to knot themselves in. Can the Beautiful Ones enjoy the lives that they have perfected? Is perfection even desirable—and does desire have any place in a world so meticulously orchestrated?
Reading all this is a bit like reading a long letter to an advice column with no reply. Everyone can see what needs to be done except for those involved, only there's no Dear Abby or Prudence or Sugar to tell them so. Friends give as much advice as friends are able to do, but that is—as I think we all find—never enough and too much all at once. People rarely heed good advice, and Moreno-Garcia’s particular triangle is no different. It's not stupidity, though, that wrecks everything here; it's tragedy. The very best qualities in each character are the things that set them up for their fall: Valerie is passionate, Hector is noble, and Nina is innocent. They mean well, choose poorly, and suffer. It's not tiresome or even tired, this story, but it is sometimes tiring to read: yet another set of lives ruined by money, by propriety, and by a woman's need to marry instead of make her own way in the world. The characters’ indecision is likewise exhausting, arising as it does from genuinely opposing forces rather than mere dithering. Any choice will plunge the protagonists into personal or public catastrophe, and the weight of that knowledge is burdensome to us as well as to them.
Yet it's mainly thrilling and urgent to read this period drama without the self-consciously bloated language of those who want to imitate Austen. Moreno-Garcia writes deftly, maintaining a sense of forward progress even when all her characters are thoroughly stuck. They are always falling in love each other, but at the wrong times, for the wrong reasons, and in all the wrong ways, and so they never seem to hit the ground and stall. They just keep falling forward.
In this way, the whole book is a magnificent tangle of unspoken words and feelings. Nothing is tepid; everything, even the absence of feelings, is charged with danger and heartache. The tension by the end is unbearable. Keeping up appearances goes from an uneasy means to a deadly end. Which is as it should be: when trafficking in beauty, we do well not to forget that it is anything but frivolous.