There are many things to love about Beautiful Creatures: the drive of the narrative, close relationships, family with all of its quirks and, in this case, deadly difficulties, the deliciously detailed descriptions (yes, I went there) and, especially on the audiobook side, the song that foreshadows events while eerily linking Lena & Ethan. I also love Lena and Ethan’s tie to the past. The authors twist on the magic theme so prevalent in YA literature is refreshing as is the ending which brings to the fore the fact that right choices can still have difficult consequences Another aspect I really appreciate: Beautiful Creatures is a complete book. It is not simply a stone on the walk to a series; it is complete in itself. The authors show their respect for their audience by wrapping up the story in the book. One very large hurdle for me to fully love the book, however, is that most of the characters are single-side and, especially, its characterization of the South as lived out in a small South Carolina town.
Most of the characters, with the exception of Lena and Macon, are cliché cardboard cutouts, none more so than the town’s people. The picture this brutish, bigoted, narrow-minded parochial and (add your favorite adjective here) citizens of Gatlin present are a herd of pigs. Ms. Garcia and Ms. Stohl both toured the South and so, aptly describe many of the surface elements of the South, but miss the depth of the characters and the region. I believe, whatever your personal bias and background, you need to be able to empathetically approach their material. Even if you’re raised to think that the South is populated by redneck dolts, you still need to be open to the real possibilities and life there. This limited view of the South is no better than depicting a New York City as being populated by hard-edged, impolite and uncaring Yankees. Bias-based characterization of any place lessens the writing, but this is true in spades if it is the primary setting of your story. I do not see that type empathy written in the story; liking pecan pie just doesn’t do the trick.
So, you have
- the doltish Gatlin residents and their children
- the lovely, well-spoken transplant, Marian
- the old southern gentleman, Macon
- the doting but wise “Mammy”, Amma
- the slightly wild, should-have-been-on-“Dukes of Hazzard”, Link
- the wild, femme fatale sister, Ridley
It sounds like a Southern Clue game. It is safe to say that they stay in character. The dialog, desires and doings of their character are all quite predictable. In an interview, the authors even admit that Ethan is the boyfriend they always wished they had. While you may want a perfect boyfriend, I think stories are better populated by a release 2 version; better but not perfect.
Now some might say that nuance doesn’t really belong in a YA novel. Broad strokes are needed to make the point for the teen audience. I think not. Nuance is welcome here while leaving some adult themes behind. Indeed, I believe a bit of complexity, world-worn lessons and bringing up short embedded expectations are exactly what ought to be in YA books. This allows us to pass on to a new generation fully-fleshed out challenges to their understanding of the world and people.
Finally, we can take lessons of implication from the characters. For example take, Mariam Ashcroft, the wise and caring librarian who is a bit eccentric. She, of course, doesn’t belong to Gatlin; otherwise she would have to be an idiot. Indeed, Ethan wonders “I could never quite figure out what someone like Marian was doing in a town like Gatlin.” Actually, I was being too narrow-minded earlier. The authors don’t just diss the South, they pretty much trash small towns in general as being a worthless residence for anyone with half a brain.
For full-disclosure, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest (near Seattle) but have lived in the Carolinas for about 20 years, with most of those years in South Carolina. Every region has its blind spots and challenges, but in all my time here, including time in a number of small towns, I’ve never met the South the authors describe or the people who inhabit their South. Mine’s a bit prettier and grittier, trendier and conservative and parochial and worldly-minded. In other words, it’s messier.
I switched between the Kindle edition and the Audible version, made a bit more difficult due to Audible still needing to enable Whispersync for Voice on the Windows Phone app. Yet another plug to the development team. It is well read by Kevin T Collins; his inflection and tone is quite good. His southern accent isn’t overdone, which is all too often the case. What makes the audible version great is the eerily performed “16 Moons” song by Michele McGonigle. I can’t image a more perfectly fitting performance.
I’ve spent a good chunk of this review on the setting because it is so important to the story, the characters and even the plot. I dare say one could come away believing I don’t think much of the authors or the story. That’s not the case. I respect the authors and, overall, enjoyed the story. It is due to that respect for both I’m so hard on the setting and the characters. I believe there can be so much more here with a bit more nuance. In fact, I anticipate reading Beautiful Darkness and look forward to other work they produce together or individually. I simply hope they let the mess of this world seep through a little bit.