Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on September 4th, 2012
Shelve It: Goodreads
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.
Dark and seductive, Monstrous Beauty started out as the perfect mermaid tale – full of immortal beings with razor sharp teeth, claw-like nails and breathtaking beauty. But as the mermaid lore became less important, and the plot centered on Hester and her inexplicable connection to Ezra, I almost lost interest. However beautiful prose and an expertly woven suspenseful tale were able to redeem Monstrous Beauty’s few shortcomings.
Told in alternating PoVs across two different periods of time – the early nineteenth century and the present – I was immediately hooked by Fama’s ability manipulate so many inter-connecting details. Syrenka was such a completely captivating protagonist that poor Hester paled in comparison for much of the book. There’s something about a character who is destined to perish that is both fascinating and suspenseful, and so I found myself enjoying Syrenka’s tragically sordid history much more than Hester’s cursed present. As time went on though, Hester was forced into making such heartbreaking decisions that I found myself in admiration of both her courage and tenacity.
The mermaid lore in Monstrous Beauty was fantastic. The scene where Hester is escorted past an underwater doll nursery was hauntingly creepy and deeply disturbing. The tenderness shown to those dolls, evidence of the mermaids’ desire for something they cannot have, was also surprisingly heartbreaking. But as soon as I found myself touched by their humanity, I was reminded of their animalistic natures; their inhumane speed and strength during Hester’s attempts at escape and their quickness to violent anger were constant reminders of their lack of humanity. I was a little disappointed with Noo’kas (the mermaid queen), because she didn’t frighten me; her flaking skin and balding were aging, not intimidating, though her aim with a spear was admirable. I was also hoping for a longer interaction between Hester and the merfolk, but their time together was relatively short-lived.
My only real issue with Monstrous Beauty was Hester’s relationship with Ezra. While I completely understand that her connection to Syrenka is the explanation behind her immediate attraction to Ezra, because there was no real development of their relationship I found myself skeptical of Hester’s rejection of everything she had believed in order to be with Ezra. I found myself questioning how such an intelligent girl, a girl who questioned everything and everyone, could be so caught up in her emotions that she would neglect to see what was obvious to everyone else. I also didn’t understand how her friends and family just accepted her strange behaviour – she was never held accountable for her irritability or secretiveness.
As Monstrous Beauty’s plot unfolded, I actually found myself a little frustrated with Hester’s seemingly slow progress, until I remembered she did not have Syrenka’s insight into the gruesome details of her curse. And while I did see some of the twists coming, I was still left in awe of Fama’s foresight into the intricate details surrounding the deaths and joining of fates of so many different characters. I also couldn’t help loving the many different facets Fama let herself work with – hauntings, curses, rape, mythology, history, murder-mystery – she covered it all and handled it flawlessly!
Gripping from its introduction, I really enjoyed Monstrous Beauty. Mermaids, ghosts, curses – it has a little bit of everything! Eerily captivating, it needs to be read for the intricate plot alone!
Disclaimer: I originally posted this review in August of 2012 on Radiant Shadows. In an effort to have a comprehensive list of all of my reviews on Pretty Little Reader, I will occasionally be reposting older reviews, usually before I review its sequel. They will always be accompanied by this disclaimer, in order to remain transparent!