Published by: Little, Brown & Co.
Genre: Fantasy/Romance (YA)
Beautiful Creatures was the first of the successful Castor Chronicles series first published in 2009. I saw the movie before I read the book and I must say - like often is the case - the movie did not do the book justice.
As is often the case, the story is a first person narrative, but this time told from the boy's POV. Sixteen year old Ethan Wate lives in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina. To him it feels like living in a fish bowl and he is keen to get away as soon as he is able. Lately Ethan is troubled by a recurring dream in which a teenage girl he does not recognise is in danger and he tries to save her. He fails every time.
It’s the end of the holidays and Ethan returns to school. It is his sophomore year and his exasperation with the small town and the small minded people, including the teenagers who live there, leaves him unenthusiastic about returning. Then he meets a new girl who has moved to town, Lena. Much to his shock, she looks exactly like the girl who keeps appearing in his dreams. Lena is unlike anyone he has met before. There is something strange about her and her individuality, as well as the fact that her uncle is Macon Ravenwood, a recluse who lives in what is believed to be a creepy haunted house, soon makes her a target among most of the teenagers at school. During a class lesson she is picked on by the cheerleading squad (yes that old chestnut). Their cruelty makes her angry and Ethan can tell something bad is about to happen. He hears a rattling sound that keeps getting louder as the teasing continues. Then a window blows in and tiny fragments of glass spray the classroom. There is a lot of screaming and ducking but the only person hurt is Lena, who was standing by the window at the time. There are small glass cuts on her hand. Ethan also notices that there is a number written in ink on her hand. Lena runs out of the class and Ethan goes after her. He eventually finds her on the grounds of her uncle’s estate sitting on the grass. She tries to warn him away but he wants reassurance that she is okay. While sitting beside her he finds an old Camay and when he picks it up both he and Lena find themselves in 19th century Gatlin during the civil war observing the experiences of a young woman, Genevieve Duchannes, from a nearby estate. Once the scene is over they are brought back to the present.
The bitchy cheerleaders spread it around that Lena broke the window and she is soon considered a danger by her classmates and the parents alike. A witch hunt ensues and Ethan is compelled to stand up for her. He is also confused by the recurring dreams connection and the visions from the Camay. All this leads him to attempt to get to know her and learn more. At first, she is prickly towards him and pushes him away, but she eventually lets down her defences and they become close. Things get very strange as Ethan discovers that Lena can communicate with him telepathically and he can respond. Ethan realises the number on Lena’s hand keeps changing and that it is a countdown to her 16th birthday – something Lena is dreading.
Things go from bad to worse for Lena and the town folk rally together to get her thrown out of the school before she does serious damage….
I know the above synopsis sounds like dozens of other YA fantasy novels out there, and in truth it does follow the same formula, but it has substance. Lena's family are casters (witches), whose female line is cursed. The curse dates back to the civil war and all is revealed to Lena and Ethan through regular flashbacks which happen whenever they touch the Camay. The civil war references are interesting and seem to mirror what is going on in the present, i.e. a battle between the town folk (the intelligent and open-minded versus the ignorant and stupid). In the same way that JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy is a critical examination of small town rural England, Beautiful Creatures is a critical examination of small town southern America. It takes a pop at the evangelical religious right and ridicules the small-minded ignorance often associated with small town people who have never ventured beyond their boundaries or are willing to accept anyone different from themselves.
The narrative owes a debt to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which also gets mentioned and referenced frequently. The scene when the entire town gathers in the school gym brings to mind a court scene in To Kill A Mockingbird and at one point Macon channels Atticus Finch (defending Lena) and at another Scout Finch (calling on members of the mob and exposing their hypocrisy – although Scout's exposure occurs through her innocence whereas with Macon it is intentional).
With the exception of Holden Caulfied (of Catcher in the Rye), Ethan Wate has to be the most likeable male teen protagonist I have come across. He is not your typical YA fantasy romantic hero. Ethan's attractiveness comes from his personality and behaviour rather than any physical description. He is a mere mortal but he is willing to look danger in the face despite the consequences, time and time again, in an attempt to help save the fate of a girl who is in a better position to face the danger than he is. Apart from Lena, his best friend Link is the only other likeable teenager in the novel. Admittedly, Lena is carrying a heavy burden as she struggles to cope with pending doom and vilification from most of the town, so it is understandable (if annoying) that she is miserable most of the time. Ethan's mother died a year before and his father is grieving and in no condition to look after him. He is taken care of by the housekeeper, Ama, whose role is a little too close to what would have been a 19th century indoor slave for comfort. Apparently she raised Ethan's father too and loves them as though they were her own. I found the whole disciplining and tough love from Ama a bit excessive, if I am honest.
This novel read like a marathon of a book and did seem to drag on at times. I wonder if this is a danger of collaborative writing (?). I found this to be the case especially during Lena and Ethan's attempts to find a way out of her hopeless situation.
There are serious and worthy messages written between the lines but I felt at times that the delivery was rather heavy-handed. For example, all those famous quotes (and clarification of who said them) shoe-horned in (or crow-barred if you prefer) to stress the importance of reading to expand ones horizons, while the fear of books and learning leads to stupidity and ignorance. Yes this is true, but if not careful isn’t there a danger of bashing readers over the head with a copy of War and Peace?
I did enjoy Beautiful Creatures and I think it is a really good collaboration by these two authors.