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Company in Isolation
In Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl ’89 (Little, Brown, 2009), a magical world exists underneath a conventional Southern town.
Reviewed by Lauren Groff ’01
[Fiction] The young-adult novel Beautiful Creatures, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, takes place in Gatlin County, S.C., where the barbecue sauce is famous, the Daughters of the American Revolution rules the roost and high school history means harangues about “The War of Northern Aggression.” It seems, as narrator Ethan Wate says, “the epicenter of the middle of nowhere”—at least until a new girl shows up at the beginning of the school year. Her name is Lena Duchannes, and she is the niece of the town hermit, Macon Ravenwood, who is never seen to leave his plantation. Within a few chapters, the reader gets intimations of a new, magical Gatlin that exists (sometimes literally) underneath the stolid, hierarchical, conventional town. Lena is from a family of Casters (otherwise known as witches and warlocks), whose members manifest the dark or light quality of their power on the night of their 16th birthday; for Lena, this birthday is half a school year away, although she already has some power. When her emotions are turbulent, her hair clenches like fists and she can shatter windows and spark thunderstorms. Unsurprisingly, she becomes a social outcast. To defend her, Ethan fritters away whatever social cachet has been bestowed upon him by his position on the basketball team and the death of his mother less than a year earlier.
The cleverest parts in this smoothly written tale are not in the dramatic flashbacks to the love story set during the Civil War, nor in the long and somewhat predictable denouement in which Lena comes into her powers. Rather, they are when the nature of the magic in the novel’s world reveals itself. Unlike in the Harry Potter series, magic is not a generic ability; in Beautiful Creatures, every Caster has his or her own major power. This means that Lena’s family is populated with Incubi and Cataclysts, Sirens and Sibyls, Empaths who can borrow others’ powers and Palimpsests who can see time in layers. Lena is a Natural, the most powerful Caster of all: everything that she imagines, she can do. This is a potent choice by Garcia and Stohl. What teenager is not both thrilled and terrified by her own imperfectly mastered power? How many smart, beloved adolescents like Ethan and Lena don’t go a little weak at the knees when faced with their own seemingly limitless potential?
While Beautiful Creatures is nothing less than engrossing, it is clearly for a narrow audience of late tweens to early teens: the characters are simplistic, the world is split into binary good and evil, the love story is familiar, and there is a somewhat unpalatable condescension toward some of the Southern characters who, to a soul, show their ignorance by dropping their terminal g’s. Such characteristics would be less acceptable in a book written for a more sophisticated audience. That said, the authors’ intelligence and craft are always apparent. Garcia and Stohl’s prose is consistently lovely, Ethan’s grief for his lost mother is delicately rendered, and the book is studded with very good poetry by writers such as T.S. Eliot and Amherst’s own Richard Wilbur ’42. Beautiful Creatures succeeds in every aspect of what it is meant to be: a thoughtful, supernatural Southern love story targeted toward teenagers who feel lonely at the edges of their worlds and who would pick up a fat Gothic novel to find some company in their isolation. I know for sure that the 12-year-old I was, once upon a time, would have devoured the book in a couple of gulps, and agitated for more.
Groff is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Monsters of Templeton and the story collection Delicate Edible Birds.