The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. ★★1/2
TW: attempted sexual assault
Sometimes when I venture in YA fantasy, I find an amazing story. More likely, I end up being disappointed. Such as it was with The Belles.
In the kingdom of Orléans, nothing is more important than beauty. But beauty isn’t something you’re born with — unless you’re a Belle. Unlike the rest of the population who are born “ugly” with dull, grey skin, the Belles are beautiful. And thanks to their particular magic, they can make everyone else beautiful too.
Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, and she has ambition. She wants to be the favorite, the one Belle chosen from each generation to live with the queen and work strictly for the court, but Camellia quickly finds that there’s a lot she doesn’t know. The court has its own dangers, primarily a princess high on power, and why is it that there’s so much Camellia doesn’t know? Where do Belles come from, why does she suspect there’s more Belles than she’s been told, and what are their powers really capable of?
As is perhaps understandable for a world obsessed with beauty, The Belles contains opulent imagery and descriptions. While at first it was stunning, the constant descriptions of gorgeous people, clothes, and settings quickly got tiring and sickly sweet. I think I needed something gritter or rougher to balance out everything being golden or compared to food. Maybe seeing more of the gris (the un-Belle-fied people) would have helped. Or the conditions the poor live in, since we pretty much only saw the upper classes. The Belles does give a bit more darkness towards the end, but I found it too little, too late.
I also wasn’t satisfied with how The Belles dealt with the issues of beauty and body positivity. The concept of beauty can be very problematic; what is beautiful is dependent on culture and cultural values. Within of Western ideals of beauty, there are some toxic notions such as placing value solely on white features and an intense focus on thinness. The Belles partly remedies this. In Orléans,, there isn’t one sort of skin color, hair texture, or type of facial feature that is valued as more beautiful. In fact, Camellia repeatedly stresses that beauty is in diversity. The Belles gets ride of racist notions of what constitutes “beautiful,” but the characters in the story still display fatphobia or ableism.
I don’t have any objection to a YA book dealing with these issues; in fact, I think it’s something we need more of. However, I don’t think The Belles handles it satisfactorily. Usually, when one of the secondary characters made a fatphobic comment, Camellia would rebut it, saying that they should instead consider curves beautiful, but I don’t know if that was enough of a rebuttal, especially as she’d be completely disregarded by the other characters. It also seems like by “fat,” Camellia means “plus sized model,” which isn’t super inclusive. I didn’t think The Belles‘s handling of fatphobia was completely disastrous, more sort of half-baked. Still, this might be one you want to avoid if you have trouble with eating disorders and the like.
As for the ableism, I think The Belles is even less self-aware. It replicates the idea that beautiful is able bodied without even tepid rebukes by Camellia. I don’t want to go to far into spoiler territory here, but when Camellia does meet a character she sees as tragically ugly, it involves facial disfigurement. The binary of “beautiful/ugly” is usually problematic when applied to human beings, and The Belles doesn’t entirely escape this.
Perhaps the most pernicious problem when it comes to The Belles subject matter is that it never dismantles Orléans’s obsession with beauty being the most important thing. The closest it gets is a couple of vague comments from the love interest about how he doesn’t consider beauty all that important. I can’t believe that there’ll be no attempt to deal with this, so I can only assume that it’s being left for the sequel.
The Belles‘s key problem is that it’s not successful in handling the issues it presents. However, I had a couple of other concerns. The story had a very slow start and took forever to pick up. It followed the YA trend of having an unnecessary and badly developed romance subplot. I was also excited about the possibility of female friendship, but that never really materialized; Camellia is almost immediately separated from her sister Belles. The attempted rape scene was badly handled and felt included for shock value. Also…
Look, every reader has their own particular sensitivities. One of mine is queer tragedy. If you’re a queer woman who doesn’t like it when the only queer women in a book are either dead or villains… yeah, maybe avoid this one.
I think there will be some people who really enjoy The Belles, and it does handle some issues well. It just isn’t for me, for a number of reasons.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.