“The Belles” by Dhonielle Clayton
4 out of 5 stars.
“Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.”
From the very start, “The Belles” had an entrancing quality to it. I could feel the textures, see the colors, and experience the sounds of Clayton’s novel from the first chapter of Camellia’s story. I instantly connected with the rich and fluid quality that Dhonielle’s storytelling style seemed to possess, and I really love how “très français” the begging of this book felt while I was reading it. Between the opulence of the court, the fashion, and the absolute need and desire for beauty and power, I felt like I was reading about King Louis XIV’s court. It has been a long time since I have read a book that has so instantly drawn me into its story, and I was both enthralled and disgusted by the opulence and excess of the broken world that Dhonielle portrayed in “The Belles.” Dhonielle Clayton is a very impressive author to elicit so spontaneously both positive and negative emotions; the beauty was alluring in this book, but then I would pause to think about how vicious and truly disturbing the heart of the “culture” of Orléans was. With this book, I appreciate the fact that I felt so strongly opposed/drawn to the world that Dhonielle had created for her heroine. I was also pleasantly surprised that Camellia was not a born rebel, already prepared to usurp the authority of Orléans, when I was “introduced” to her.
Camellia was a follower. She was obedient, subservient. Most people might have issues with that aspect of this character’s personality, but I rather liked it. Sometimes I feel like YA novels get more than a little too formulaic with the development of their heroines and heroes. Somehow these girls and boys are just born rebels, unlike anyone else in their culture or society, and that their “perfectly” devised rebellion against the rules is exactly what all the world needs. I’m tired of reading the same type of characters recast with new names. So for me, Camellia was a breath of fresh air. This poor girl was unique by her society’s standards due to the fact that she was born with the gift of beauty, but she was otherwise the opposite of a rebel in the beginning of this book. What I so enjoyed about “The Belles” was how it took trials, experiences, and seeing the ugly truth behind the elegantly constructed façade of her world to make Camellia think about the consequences of such a cruelly stratified society. Gradually, she began to see what needed to stopped, what needed to be changed, and learned to be brave enough to do what was right. Camellia was not born with the tools that so many other heroines are given in their own books, but Dhonielle did such an amazing job of writing the struggle between Camellia’s desire to only see and create beauty for her society, while also wanting to be free of the confines of the Orléans’ toxic culture. I loved that Camellia’s character development was a slow-burn; she still has a long way to go in the next book, but I am really looking forward to seeing Camellia grow more fully into who she has the potential to be.
A unique aspect to this book was how the tone of the novel changed as Camellia began to discover what made her world keep spinning. I know that many books get darker as they go along, or they become grittier as the characters uncover what’s going on or who needs to be stopped. But with “The Belles,” it felt almost artful in how the tones were fluffy, elegant, and airy while Camellia was enamored with the court of Orléans, but as she became aware of what others were doing to gain power and beauty and that she was just a pawn in their game, the tone became darker, almost grayish in hue. I know that most books attempt to do this as its hero or heroine evolves, but the writing style in “The Belles” made the transition and change in tone feel so fluid and elegant that I did not notice the contrast right away, because I was so engrossed in the story. Dhonielle’s writing style didn’t lose its fluid descriptiveness even as it maintained a sense of gravity that was appropriate for the situation and the parallels it was drawing between this book and our current society.
Oh, the parallels! Honestly, I just loved how Dhonielle put societies’ standards of beauty, past and present, on display in “The Belles.” The culture of Orléans was built off of the idea that you are only good or valuable if you maintain the ever evolving standard of what it is to be beautiful. Sound familiar? Fallow the trends, or else you’re an outcast. Ostracize those who do not fit into your groups based on how they dress or how you look. Block the less pretty people/accounts from your instagram because they’ll “kill your image.” I saw in “The Belles” so much of the current generation of what beauty is, what men and women do to themselves to obtain it, because beauty is power, right? It is a tale as old as time, and I admit that I have been guilty of this same behavior at times in my life, just like everyone else. But to me, I loved the fact that Dhonielle brought these parallels to the forefront of her book, not to accuse, but to encourage people to stop that kind of behavior, and to not let others’ ideas of what beauty is to make you hurt yourself or change how you look, just to make them comfortable enough to accept you. I thought her message was poignant considering the swipe right and instagram generation we live in. There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful or wanting things to make you feel pretty (I love my makeup and pretty clothes!), but what makes it wrong is when that desire becomes an obsession that consumes and hurts you, driving you into a mindset that leaves you unhappy.
I was truly surprised and impressed by Clayton’s refreshing approach to her heroine, and her book’s progression and message. I also found the other characters like Ivy, Rèmy, and her sisters to all be very interesting, despite not getting as much time to get to know them as I had wanted. I feel like “The Belles” was really about setting up the world, revealing the villain, and beginning Camellia’s true journey, rather than throwing too many other dynamics into the mix. It was a fairly complex book, but I can definitely tell that there is going to be a LOT more going on in the next book. I hope that Rèmy and the sisters get a bit more page time, because I felt like there is so much more to all of these characters, and I am curious to see where Dhonielle intends to take her story.
This book was a big win for me!