Sometimes you come across books that are pretty; other times you come across books that are downright beautiful.
Let’s talk about The Belles.
Heavily inspired by New Orléans culture and French roots, The Belles is a decadent young adult fantasy that enticed me first with the sheer beauty in which it was written, and then kept me interested with rich world-building, a page-turning plot, and a main character that I couldn’t help but root for. Throw in sprinklings of forbidden love, court secrets, and betrayals I didn’t expect but probably should have, The Belles surprised me by how enjoyable and interesting I found it. From page one I wanted to dive straight into Orléans, experience the lavish balls, explore the colorful cities, and perhaps even book my own appointment at one of the many tea houses through which the Belles complete their beauty work—if I didn’t know the tea houses’ true nature, that is.
Beauty is in the Eye of the Goddess—The Theme Behind The Belles
On the surface, it would be incredibly easy to write The Belles off as a potentially superficial tale surrounding beautiful girls magically altering people to be just as beautiful. The concept behind the Belles—gorgeous young girls blessed by the Goddess of Beauty to bring beauty back to the people of Orléans, who’ve been cursed to be grey, straw-haired, and red-eyed—would seem just that. But, much like Camellia Beauregard comes to find, there’s more to The Belles than meets the eye.
In reading The Belles, I was swept away by the truer themes of the book. Beauty is the obvious heavy-lifter here, but time and time again it’s shown that beauty isn’t always what we think—and often times isn’t worth the lengths we go to in order to obtain it. The Belles takes phenomenon like the altering of one’s body, hair, even skin tone and eye color in order to become more beautiful and shows exactly how dangerous commodifying beauty can be. Through Camellia we see a mirror of our own world—granted, a fantastical one—that reflects how dangerously easy it is to get caught up in the trends of beauty standards and how harmful it is to people who don’t or cannot conform. From the afterward by Dhonielle Clayton:
When I was a pimply, puffy-haired pre-teen of the mid 1990s, I overheard a conversation at my local suburban mall among several men about their respective girlfriends’ bodies. They were thumbing through a popular magazine as they discussed how much better their girlfriends might look if they had longer and leaner legs, bigger breasts, different hair textures, a more slender frame, softer skin, and on and on, comparing them to the celebrities voted the most beautiful women in the world that year.
This conversation broke something deep down inside of me, and in that fissure grew a monster.
I checked out magazines from the public library and spent hours poring over the pages, dissecting the images and studying the women photographed. I housed my obsession in a secret little space inside my childhood bedroom. If you go in my closet and push back the clothes, there’s a tiny door made perfect for a hobbit, a reading nook built by my bookwork parents to foster my love of reading. But I used that little room to explore all the thoughts I was having about bodies and beauty. I cut out pictures of women I thought men would consider beautiful, and pasted them on the little walls: legs, breasts, arms, torsos, eyes, hair textures, skin tones, and hairstyles.
Over time, the walls held the wishes I had for my own body and filled me with questions. What would I do if I could change myself completely? How far would I go? How ugly could it get, and why? Was there a way to be the most beautiful woman in the world?
The world of Orléans is built from the flesh and bones of that monster. It’s ugly, painful, unsettling, and oftentimes disturbing.
The beauty of the way The Belles is written and the lens through which you’re reading it tints the world of Orléans with rose-colored glasses. It’s the way that, in our world, magazines, picture filters, face-tune, cosmetic surgery, and the like, tints actual human bodies. We see something that needs to be obtained, and we don’t question why or how—not until we’re forced to. It’s the experience that Camellia must face as she goes from being an enthusiastic Belle vying to be the queen’s favorite, to a reluctant participant in a society that has facilitated commodifying outward beauty at the expense of finding true self-worth.
The Cherries on Top
In addition to being a stellar commentary on beauty standards, The Belles is just one scrumptious morsel after another of poignant story-telling, creative world-building, interesting characters, and fantastic twists. Not to mention the Belle of the ball herself—Camellia.
Camellia is voicy; she knows what she wants and thirsts for it in a way that contrasts perfectly with the conflict she feels over what happens if or when she reaches her goals. I thought that her conflicts were realistic and relatable, especially where they pertain to her best friend and sister, Ambrosia (Amber, for short) who is not only her most cherished companion but her direct competition in being chosen as the favorite of the Belles. She’s trying to find her place in the world in which she was born in—and given the world she was born in puts such an emphasis on beauty, it’s certainly something anyone with a recent memory of their formative years can relate to. I thought she was an incredible protagonist, as intelligent as she was fierce, as strong as she could be vulnerable—a human being fleshed out in paper and ink.
Then there’s the romance. Let’s talk about that.
While it isn’t the focus of the book, I loved the romance aspect of The Belles. There’s something of a subversion of the classic love triangle that goes on. Without being too spoilery for those who haven’t read, Camellia ends up with two love interests. One who is virtually unobtainable by merit that he is too busy sticking to a protocol to stick anything anywhere near Camellia, and the other who is almost as equally as unobtainable on the merit that he’s potentially the future king of Orléans.
There’s an obvious attraction that Camellia feels for both, for vastly different reasons—and these two potential love interests are never in direct conflict with each other. It was nice to read a love triangle where the romance subplot wasn’t steeped in two guys trying to out-macho the other in order to win the girl.
The Questionable Apples
With everything that I love about this book, there were a couple of things that stood out to me—namely the pacing at the end of the book, and the handling of the queer characters.
The first is easier to tackle; it’s very hard to nail a climax and resolution, and The Belles definitely struggled with this. I thought the first decent 4/5 of the book was delicately paced, not a plot point out of place too soon or too early. The climax and ending, however, wasn’t so nicely handled. I thought that it was very rushed, and juxtaposed with the former portions of the book, it was very obvious and very, very jarring.
And then… the queer characters.
The world of Orléans is incredibly diverse. Gender and sexuality (and to a degree, race) are at the forefront of that, with explicit nods to the fact that not only are there same-sex couples but also that transness is something that is discussed (and eventually validated) in-world. This is one thing that I loved about The Belles—the implication that beauty wasn’t something only obtainable by heterosexual, cis, white people.
What I didn’t love was the fact that the two most prominent queer characters also happen to be characters who meet less than savory ends. The combination of in-world acceptance with the fact that two of the deaths in the book are also the two queer characters that had significance in the story, was a conflicting one for me—was this part of the commentary on the disposability of queer people in society? Or was it an accidental oversight on the part of Dhonielle Clayton? As a queer woman myself who is aware of the fact that Dhonielle Clayton is one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books, the choice stood out to me, for better or worse.
I loved this book. A lot. In reading it I felt that Orléans was a lot of what was attempted in the portrayal of The Capitol in The Hunger Games—with its message and execution being far more successful. The world building and magic system was immersive and unique, and despite the shortcomings in the later portions of the book, The Belles left me feeling a sense of satisfaction and longing for the next part of Camellia’s story. Now that she sees beauty for the ugly thing that it can truly be, where will it take her?
The Belles is for you if: You’re looking for a young adult fantasy filled with lush descriptions, female-heavy casts, snarky love interests (and a bonus broody one,) heroines of color, themes of beauty and busting standards, and the promise of more to come.
About Dhonielle Clayton
Dhonielle Clayton is the co-author of the Tiny Pretty Things series. She grew up in the Washington, DC suburbs on the Maryland side and spent most of her time under her grandmother’s table with a stack of books. A former teacher and middle school librarian, Dhonielle is co-founder of CAKE Literary—a creative development company whipping up decidedly diverse books for a wide array of readers—and COO of the non-profit, We Need Diverse Books. She’s got a serious travel bug and loves spending time outside of the USA, but makes her home in New York City, where she can most likely be found hunting for the best slice of pizza.