September 12, 2012

Review: Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

When I was a kid I wanted to be a mermaid. The tail, the red hair, the cute prince… Obviously Disney knew how to sell its movies. Then I read the original story and my underwater dreams died, but I remained intrigued by these creatures. I’m surprised that mermaids aren’t more common in PNR and YA, but I’m happy to see a book that’s not about vampires or angels.

Hester comes from a line of women who died soon after giving birth. Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother died within days of having their first child, all of which also happened to be girls. Hester knows that there’s something very wrong with her and has decided never to fall in love. She’s aloof, angsty and tormented, but she’s also a teenager so it’s hard to tell whether she’s like that because of a curse, or because of her age. Things get complicated when her relationship with her best friend begins to change, but her unwillingness to fall in love makes her push him away. And when a mysterious guy saves her from an attack everything changes. She feels mysteriously attracted to him and to the answers he brings. Smells like love triangle, right? Not quite, more like creepy teenage obsession mixed with disappointing unfulfilled promise of a sweet romance. I’ll explain later.

Our second heroine is Syrenka, who is, you guessed it, a mermaid. She has a knack for falling in love with the wrong guy and loving them to death (or drowning them by mistake). So when she meets Ezra, a young and dashing naturalist, she decides to take things slow. But how could someone resist a 19th Century naturalist whose first reaction upon seeing a monster is an encouraging horny interest? So she decides to love him anyway and damn the consequences. The problem is that those consequences will be tragic to everyone involved.

As you can see, this book has two stories: Syrenka’s in the past and Hester’s in the present. They are related -- what happened to Syrenka all those years ago had an impact on Hester and all her ancestors. We follow both leads while one discovers what happened and the other fights for love. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. It was intriguing and different, but other than a couple of moments that made me do a double take, I wasn’t amazed by it. The prose was lyrical and helps set the darker, almost melancholic tone of the story, but the main character doesn’t fit well with it. As I said before, Hester behaves like an agnsty, intense teenager and there was nothing paranormal about it. It’s an adult book with a YA heroine, and the result was awkward. It doesn’t help that Hester is reckless, selfish and has way too many TSTL moments.

Syrenka’s story was very interesting. I liked it because we get a heroine that’s not really heroic. She makes mistakes, pays for them, repeats them and then does whatever it takes to get what she wants while completely disregarding the consequences. More than a heroine we had a villain with a heart of gold. A monstrous villain, these mermaids are brutal. What we have here is a complex character that was easy to root for, yet when things don’t go her way I wasn’t particularly sad. This was the best part of the story.

The book is also a mystery because we are supposed to follow Hester while she puts everything together, but at the same time we follow Syrenka’s journey so we know how the pieces fit. The mystery isn’t mysterious and the surprises are so predictable, that not even the characters were properly surprised by them.

I mentioned the love triangle that never was, and I must warn you that this isn’t a romance. There are two love interests and one hero-ish character, but things don’t end well for them, at least not in a traditional way (traditional as in Romance). There is a love story in the book, but it’s more horror than romance. And Hester’s story involves a disturbing relationship that’s mostly a magic-induced insta-love. However, it doesn’t end like you would predict, so even though I’m a purist and want romance in everything, I was pleasantly surprised by how the book didn’t follow the norm. 

While the idea was ambitious and original, the execution was poor. I want to give it points for effort, but overall I was disappointed by how much promise it showed and how little of it delivered. It’s a story that wants to be more than it is. I like Ms. Fama’s voice and I appreciate the originality, the setting is beautiful and sets the tone perfectly, but Monstrous Beauty is not a great book. 

If you feel like reading something different and enjoy YA stories that are light on the romance, I’m sure you will like Monstrous Beauty. Just remember that it doesn’t have a conventional romance and that some of its themes can be disturbing. Also, the book answers the most important question about mermaids ever, without actually answering it. So I’m pretty bummed about that (don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about *cough* mermaid sex *cough*).

Review by Brie
Grade: 3
Sensuality: McSexy
Purchase: Amazon


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.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR). September 4, 2012.


  1. 3 stars, huh?

    The idea of this book sounds really intriguing. I think I'll give it a shot.

    Thanks for the thorough review!

  2. I've heard this is among the better mermaid YA books out there, so I'm glad you enjoyed, even though you didn't love it. I'm looking forward to reading, even though it's light on the romance which is a bummer for me. I'm interested in the mermaid sex answers!! HAHAHA

    1. I don't think I've ever read another mermaid book, YA or not, so I can't compare, but it wasn't bad. Now, if this one is the best, I'm not touching the rest. Syrenka's story is a romance, so at least there's that. Let me know how you like it!

  3. Hmmm, interesting. This book sounds pretty dark, so probably not something for me.

    I think there was an author who tried mermaid in YA... Tera Lynn Childs? But I don't know how successful she was. I think mermaids are a bit more difficult to pull off than vampires or werewolves... As interesting, but more difficult :)

    1. Not so dark, most of the dark moments were mostly for shock value, I think. Mermaids are interesting, though, I really wonder why we don't see more of them in romance.

    2. Doesn't Deborah Smith have a mermaid book? Alice something something. I know I have the book somewhere. Must check my Kindle, I went through a Deborah Smith phase and I'm sure I bought the book.

  4. LOL, I went through a Deborah Smith phase too :) My favorite of hers is Blue Willow! I just cried my eyes out for that one :)

    She did indeed have a mermaid book. I read it, but quite frankly, it was a bit weird and not as emotional as I thought it'd be... because it was weird LOL


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