Book Review: Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

During the summer I co-hosted the mermaid blogging event Splash Into Summer with my mermaid soul twin, Bonnie. I would most definitely have heard about Monstrous Beauty anyway, but I have Bonnie to thank for the heads up on this one. I waited patiently to get approved for this book on NetGalley, but covered my bases by also requesting a physical ARC of the book. Turns out I decided not to read my ARCs, and went straight for the finished copy instead–I saw the amazing cover in person, and the book just had to come home with me!

Elizabeth Fama’s Monstrous Beauty does indeed live up to its title; her mermaids are not of the Disney variety, and though there is so much sadness and heartache to be found in these pages, there is an undeniable beauty to it all. The story begins in 1522 with the mermaid Syrenka and sets the mood for when her story picks up again in the late 1800s after she falls for a human named Ezra, who is drawn to both her and all the secrets of the sea. To become human like Ezra, Syrenka commits unspeakable acts which she hides from Ezra. Later, her actions come back to haunt her.

Chapters set in the 1800s alternate with chapters that are set in modern day. 17-year-old Hester Goodwin is convinced that the women in her family are cursed. Her birth mother died just days days after giving birth to Hester, and all of the women before her mother met the same unexplained ending: death after bringing new life. For this reason, Hester vows that she will never fall in love. Her best friend, Peter, obviously has feelings for her (though Hester seems to be oblivious), but Hester meets an older boy named Ezra who may persuade her to go back on her vow.

Fama without a doubt has a beautiful writing style; though Monstrous Beauty is shelved in YA, it’s very dark and sensual and will also appeal to adult readers. If Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid had not found unrequited love with the prince and Christiansen had written the tale for an adult audience, perhaps it would have been very similar to Fama’s.

Choosing to set Syrenka’s story in Massachusetts was a great decision; this gave her the ability to explore the history of the settlers (Hester works as a reenactor at Plimouth Colony) as well as creepy settings like old graveyards and churches with colorful histories. Monstrous Beauty became even more intriguing when I learned that the plot not only involved mermaids, but also ghosts. I could not even begin to dream up how the two would intertwine.

Though Fama gets lots of brownie points for having a historically rich setting and a plot unlike any I’ve ever seen before in mermaid fiction, the alternating chapters (each from a different time period) were not a good fit for me. The reader is given the omniscient point of view, but has to wait for Hester to slowly begin to piece everything together. I will admit that not everything was entirely obvious to me, however; there was a very big reveal in the final chapters that had my eyes widening in surprise. I was interested in everything that occurred in both time periods in this book, though this is not usually a novel format that I prefer.

I don’t often re-read books anymore, but Monstrous Beauty is one of those rare books that I feel I will want to revisit again one day. Not only did I enjoy the overall plot, I’ve also been inspired to research the mermaid mythology that Fama has included, as well as the history of Hester’s town.

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