Review: Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama


September 26, 2012 by Heidi

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama book coverTitle: Monstrous Beauty [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Elizabeth Fama [Website|Twitter]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Historical
Published: September 4th, 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Format:  Hardcover; 304 Pages
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley
Spoilers!: Yes. This review. It has them.

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.


Just in case you cbf to read it up there, there will be ALL THE SPOILERS in this review.  Because I can’t really talk about the many things I did not like about Monstrous Beauty and not tell you in some detail what they were.  Read at your own risk.

So I finally did it.  I read a mermaid book.  My disdain for this trend was already pretty big considering I had yet to actually dip my toes in it, but when I started seeing one fabulous review after the other pour in for Monstrous Beauty I was determined that this would be the mermaid book for me.  It was described as literary and haunting, beautifully written with dark, Gothic touches.  Perfect for me.  Oh, how wrong I was.

The Lore:  I’m torn about the mermaid lore in Monstrous Beauty.  On the one hand, I love their physical descriptions, their general rules of being, and I pumped my fist like a mofo when Syrenka ripped open that rapist’s chest and ate his lungs (the best part of the whole damn book imho), but on the other hand it was all just so convenient.  We didn’t learn a single thing about mermaids (or anything else for that matter) that wasn’t immediately relevant to the tale at hand.  It wasn’t as if the story existed within this world that already existed, it was as if the world was being constructed to support the story.  Also, didn’t Syrenka tell Ezra that to become human she had to bear a human child?  And yet, it never occurred to him to ask her what she was doing with legs?  The willful ignorance of the characters and the all-too convenient story lines were glaring.

It’s a bit rapey up in here: One aspect that particularly bothered me was the rapey-ness of the whole thing.  A man who would go to great lengths to save another from the evil grips of a mermaid would suddenly be overcome with the need to rape her?  Not to mention the fact that in the present day, Hester is continually leered at, physically accosted, and treated in a generally lecherous manner that is shrugged off almost as if this is perfectly normal male behavior.  Um…what?  A dude pushes himself on you, you manage to scare him off raping you by seeming crazypants, and you prove you’re crazy by not telling anyone about this creep?!?!  How is that okay?!  You let dudes eye bang you and proposition you for sex while you’re at work, and you don’t tell them off because you think your boss would be annoyed at you for breaking character?  Yeah, pretty sure if your boss would actually be upset with you over asserting your right not to be treated like a sex toy on the job, you need to find a new place to work.  But, Hester’s complete confusing lack of sense aside, why do all of these men in this book act this way?  Are we as readers supposed to accept that most guys out there are just waiting for the opportunity to rape women, or is this supposed to be some mermaid mojo that they unknowingly hold over human men?  If this is some sort of power that’s supposed to have been worked into the lore, we should see that, but it’s not there.  And so we come to the fact that the only decent guy in this whole book is Peter and…

Hester: How do I disdain thee?  Let me count the ways.  Well, I already mentioned the ‘I’m going to let guys treat me like crap’ thing, so how about the ‘I’m going to treat guys like crap right back’ thing?  Peter, her best friend, is so obviously in love with her and such a good guy–she does not in any way deserve him.  She completely brushes him off, ditches him, and even has the gall to ask him for help doing illegal things after all of that.  Then she gets all huffy when he asks if maybe she did this other illegal thing that she did do, makes him worry about her all night, and then at the end is all ‘oh you’ve been worried about me?  Whatever, I’ll tell you about it some other time, how ’bout you read my dead lover’s headstone for me?’  Peter’s feelings are never once addressed.

And those illegal things? Made no sense.  Hester supposedly wants to be a historian, but no history program in their right mind would accept her.  First, Hester inexplicably needs to steal a book from the rare section of the library.  (Side note–loved the librarian here who was awesome and helpful in Hester’s genealogical research!)  The librarians let her look at this book as much as she wants.  She expresses shock that she’s allowed to touch it, but then as soon as their backs are turned she shoves it in her backpack.  Then, she also has to steal a doll from the museum.  She has to steal it right that second.  It’s so important, even though the task she needs it for has been left undone for well over a hundred years, and I’m pretty sure a day or two to go through legitimate channels would make no real difference.  She potentially damages more historical property in order to complete this task–and almost certainly destroys the doll.  Clearly Hester has no real respect for this field she wants to be a part of.

Then, let’s talk about her curse.  Hester believes (and rightly so) that the women in her family carry a curse that will make them die shortly after giving birth.  Okay…so she decides that she can’t have children.  Logical enough, right?  Nope!  To Hester, not having kids equates to ‘I can never be in a relationship with anyone ever’.  Apparently, she had the sing-song ‘First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage’ drilled into her head to the point of severe brainwashing.  Since when does not wanting children mean you can’t have love?  What kind of message does that send?  Sure, I’ll hand it to Elizabeth Fama, she addresses the notion of birth control, but Hester believes that without surgical procedures, there’s no guarantee love won’t mean death for her.  This is ridiculous. Birth control, when taken properly, is extremely effective.  The pill, for example, is over 99% effective.  Set a freaking alarm and take it at the exact same time every day, then make your partner wear a condom as a backup form of birth control.  I pretty much guarantee you’re not going to get knocked up unless you’re some kind of fertile wonder.  Hester sits around all mopey about her lot in life without ever really thinking about her options or taking control.  After reading other heroines that don’t want kids, but have enough agency to still be happy in life–because IT’S OKAY TO NOT WANT KIDS (look at Katsa or Aya)–Hester was just insufferable.

The Relationship: Insta love, no development, inexplicably drawn to one another…could I be less interested?  Hester, who has decided that she must be alone forever to the point where she has only one friend and treats him like dirt, instantly drops all of her ‘hard-earned’ personal strife when she meets Ezra.  Which says to me not ‘oh I’ve been suffering with this curse and now I can’t resist love’ but, ‘oh hey, no one’s ever good enough for me, but this dude’s cute so I guess I’m good to go now’.  Seriously, she has one real conversation with him and then is ready to make out and potentially drop what little life she has to hang out with him on the beach forever?  That’s healthy emotional growth for ya.

The explanation: Okay, first, I have to say that the urgency of this ‘mystery’ made zero sense to me.  Hester had this unexplained need to suddenly uncover the details of her family curse, free pinned spirits, and fix something that’s been happening for over 100 years.  There was no reason behind her urgency or actions, no legitimate motivation spurring her on.  Then, Hester uncovers the fact that she holds Syrenka’s soul within her body.  I didn’t find this charming or self sacrificing on Syrenka’s part, I found it pretty messed up.  Syrenka throws her soul into the empty shell of her own daughter’s body after realizing that she’d used her own daughter’s soul to pin the spirit of Ezra (and apparently everyone else who died that day–though I’m pretty sure this was never addressed).  See–maybe it’s just me–but I don’t get this.  Putting your soul into someone else’s body doesn’t save that person.  That person doesn’t exist, the body is a shell.  Sticking your soul in their body only gives you a new body.  It’s not self-sacrificing, it’s self-indulgent.  It’s some weird method of practicing immortality.  I didn’t think ‘oh how lovely’ when this was explained, mostly I just felt disturbed and it made me dislike Syrenka more.

The obvious: I don’t deal well with characters who don’t figure things out as fast as readers.  I really don’t deal well with characters who take as long to figure out the obvious as Hester does.  The fact that Hester is seeing and communicating with ghosts is obvious to the reader from the beginning.  They literally tell her that no one else talks to them, but she still doesn’t get it.  In fact, after she finally begrudgingly accepts that one character must be a ghost, it never occurs to her that these other people who are obviously displaced in time might also be dead.  Really, Hester?

Obviously, I failed to find Monstrous Beauty beautiful.  I didn’t feel as if there was any emotional development, the world building was a patch job, the pacing inexplicable, and the outcome unsatisfactory.  Maybe I should just stay away from mermaids all together from now on…

Decide for yourself! Check out an excerpt of the audio for Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Slim to none.  I do think that Elizabeth Fama is one of those writers who is incredibly gracious to her fans, which I love, and I don’t think she’s a bad writer, but the choices she made in this book were all ones that rubbed me the wrong way.  I don’t think we have a future together.

Recommended for:  Obviously this book was not right for me, but it could be right for you!  Many of my bookish friends have read and loved it, so please see their reviews I’ve linked below before you write it off.  If you feel you are so in sync with me that you couldn’t possibly love a book I dislike (you may be crazy but), I suggest picking up The Brides of Rollrock Island instead to achieve that “literary” and “haunted” feel that I thought Monstrous Beauty lacked.

Get a second opinion:
Hitting on Girls in Bookstores – “This is a really good fucking novel. That “fucking” is italicized to emphasize how fucking good of a novel Monstrous Beauty is.”
Into the Hall of Books – “Elizabeth Fama has written a story of pure beauty and mystery and complexity. It’s dark and brooding and mysterious and heartbreaking.”
The Midnight Garden – “Monstrous Beauty‘s dark moodiness is incredibly evocative, and the startling originality of its story–as well as the lush vividness of its imagery–will not soon be forgotten.”
Young Adult Anonymous – “just when I was about to throw my hands in the air and plead, “Get with it already, Hester!” Fama added enough suspense and surprises to bring the story home with a satisfying smash.”
Love Is Not a Triangle – “Beautifully written and amazingly well crafted, I love the way Elizabeth Fama’s words fill the page and her story weaves together.”
Bibliophilic Monologues – “I wasn’t too enamored of this book. Not as much as I wanted to be anyway.”


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  1. Nafiza says:

    Fantastic review, Heidi. And the fact that Ezra KILLED A FRAKKIN child! I can’t get over it. Ughhh. And Hester, ugh. Yeah, I did not like this one at all.

    • Heidi says:

      Oh yeah! I forgot to even rage about that. Wtf? I don’t understand how we were supposed to be swoony about Ezra. Though the kid was stupid getting in the way of a dude carrying the corpse of his wife on his shoulder and being all whiney. Really? You can’t just put the baby on the ground? You don’t see that this dude’s a wee bit preoccupied? Your review was one of the few unhappy ones I read before reading this myself–so happy to know I wasn’t alone!

  2. Heidi, I’m not trying to be difficult or anything, but I think you should be more honest than this in your reviews. This beating around the bush simply won’t do. 😛

  3. Also, I forgot to mention that you made me laugh three times before 8 am. No small feat, I tell you.

  4. So I just skimmed over the spoilers and I am kind of glad I’ve been putting this off, because yuck.

    But, I’m also a big fan of forming my own opinion, so I’ll try it but go in not expecting the greatest book ever.

    • Heidi says:

      Yes, I’m all for everyone deciding for themselves! I emphatically told Alyssa not to read my review before she read this book because she may be one of many who would like it. You might to! But yeah, for me, it was uber yuck.

  5. HEIDI! *hugs* Well, that hug was really more for me because I am SO glad I am not the only one who writes ridiculously snarky reviews, but it’s also for you because you had to read this! (Seriously though, your snarky reviews are AWESOMEEEE! :D) Gosh, first of all…WTH? THE RAPE? WHAT? Plus, to make matters worse, Hester sounds like a complete dimwit and – dare I say it? – a female dog. In all honesty, my blood would be boiling by the time I slammed this book down because there is just SO much wrong with it and the messages it brings out. ESPECIALLY THE ONE ABOUT RAPE! FNSDLKNFGKLDSNG! >.<

    I suggest you pick up Fire by Kristen Cashore, Heidi, if you haven't read it already. It's the companion novel to Graceling but is a stand-alone and has nothing to do with Graceling, especially since it's a prequel. I was reminded of it while reading this because Fire, who is the last monster in her world, is a beautiful woman whose beauty often inspires men to want to rape her. Yet, that aspect of the story is dealt with remarkably well and Fire also yearns to have children, but she can't because she'll only breed more monsters, and that entire dilemma is written so beautifully too. Kristen Cashore is a fantastic writer and I think she's taken a lot of the horrible themes in this book and made them wonderful in Fire. (When I say monster I just mean a really beautiful human…it's a little hard to explain exactly, but they're humans who have mind-control powers. Either way, the book is awesome and I think you'll love it.) I had to recommend it to you in case you hadn't already read it just because this book reminded me of how wonderfully these same issues were tackled in that book.

    Anyway, fantastic review, Heidi! I love your honesty and the snark made my day! 😉

    • Heidi says:

      Hahaha, *hugs* indeed! And yes. The rape had me raging. I understand that rape is a real thing, and it does have its place in certain books, (look at Speak or Daughter of the Forest) but when it seems to be completely out of character and used only as a convenient plot device it is absolutely enraging to me.

      I actually have Fire sitting on my shelf waiting for me! And after your pitch, I’m even more excited to read it (alas, it just keeps getting pushed aside for ARCs/books I’ve borrowed–but I’m almost caught up on those!). I agree that Kristin Cashore addresses things like that excellently. I know she’s gotten a lot of crap for being ‘anti-marriage and hating kids’ because of Katsa, but there are so many young women out there who don’t want kids or necessarily want to be married themselves, and they need to see that this is okay! The insinuation that babies are the only path for a woman in life is so archaic I’m shocked that it still exists in books like this and not just historical or fantasy reads.

  6. Oh my gosh, I almost bought this book yesterday while at B&N, but decided not to because I’ve never had any luck with mermaid books. I don’t know if my idea of mermaids is pretty much derived from Disney’s The Little Mermaid (yes, I’m a total fan of the movie), and all these mermaid books I’ve read don’t match up with Disney mermaids.

    I’ve read Of Poseidon (big let down), and Forgive my Fins (not a fan), so I am always looking for a mermaid book I will like.

    I’m glad that I didn’t buy this book after reading your review. I can tell this book is not for me.

    • Heidi says:

      Glad I could help save you from another disappointment, Quinn! I have a couple other mermaid books on hand (like Of Poseidon) and am just worried they’re not for me. I only made it about 30 pages into Lies Beneath before I gave up.

      I think maybe I was ruined by Ariel too! 😀

  7. A hahahahha!!! Oh my lord…I agree with every single thing you wrote. I don’t even need to write a review now because this one says exactly what I wanted to say. I’m so glad we randomly read this at the same time.

    • Heidi says:

      Hahaha, thanks, Catie! I’m also SO glad we randomly picked this up together. I really doubt I would have even read the whole thing if it hadn’t become this fascinating case of ‘DID YOU JUST READ THAT?!’ on Goodreads.

  8. elena says:

    WORD to this review. I totally get what you mean about the lore, i think it’s interesting but at the same time SO MANY PROBLEMS. I thought about the human thing too but the book completely bypassed, among other things. I have no words for Hester. She’s just……….how are we suppose to be rooting for her?!

  9. VeganYANerds says:

    Heids, I love this review! I want to give up on mermaid books because all the ones I’ve read have been crap and I was going to consider this one but I think I have to pass. The rape aspect sounds awful and the fact that it’s assumed that sex always = pregnancy bugs me a lot. Someone get Hester a copy of Taking Charge of Your Fertility, STAT!

    • Heidi says:

      Hahaha, yes! It really bothered me that she didn’t think she could have any romantic future whatsoever because that would have to mean having children. This was my first mermaid book that I actually got through (I only made it about 30 pages into Lies Beneath), and I don’t feel very encouraged to read any more.

  10. Melanie says:

    Oh goodness, I love the title and cover of this one, but I can tell it’s not for me.

    I haven’t really thought about it, but I haven’t read a mermaid book since Siren, and that was over a year ago.

    • Heidi says:

      I loved this cover as well! I was really shocked when a lot of people disliked the cover change from the ARC to the final copy–I thought this art was beautiful.

  11. Kimberly says:

    Fair review. I enjoyed the book, but you made some good points.

    I take it you’re a Doctor Who fan? (The River Song “Spoilers” kinda gave it away.) 😉

  12. This book does not sound good. I think I would hate it. It really irritates me when it takes characters agesss to figure out really obvious things because it almost feels as though the author thinks their writing is good enough that the reader WON’T find these things glaringly obvious. Pretty cover though :-) x

    • Heidi says:

      It is a pretty cover! I really approved of the cover change, and it’s part of what drew me to pick the book up in the first place. But yeah, I found the reading of it to be very frustrating.

  13. Jasmine Rose says:

    I don’t want to read the review since I don’t want to be spoilers, but I just had to comment about the Doctor Who graphic because I’m totally loving it ;]

    • Heidi says:

      Haha, thanks, Jasmine! I can’t really think of the word ‘spoilers’ and not hear it in River Song’s voice anymore. 😛

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