Title: The Belles
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Series: The Belles, #1
Release Date: February 6th 2018
Dhonielle Clayton paints an enchanting and dark world in her latest novel The Belles. Camellia Beauregard was born a Belle. In a world where beauty has been stripped from its people, Belles are the only ones who can manipulate and transform them into something beautiful. Camellia and her sisters have been training for years for their debut, hoping to be chosen by the queen of Orléans to be the crown’s favorite, the ultimate form of validation for all their hard work. But being the favorite comes with consequences none of the girls could have prepared for and soon Camellia finds herself caught between royals that not only expect her to be the best, but demand it of her. Not obeying has dire consequence for Camellia, her sisters, and the entire kingdom.
Clayton’s writing takes you through a whirlwind of sensations. She captivates readers from the very first page, tapping into each of our senses with such ease. I not only saw Orléans, I felt it, heard it, smelled and tasted it. One of the things I loved about Clayton’s use of beauty is that it is all-encompassing in this world. It isn’t limited to the rich social spheres of Orléans. It is not just the people who must be beautiful, it is the homes, the teahouses, the fashion. Clayton’s descriptions are vivid and delectable; at times, it felt like I was devouring the words instead of reading them. Beauty has become the only way of life for those in Orléans, and for many this has become an obsession. There are some very ugly and terrifying characters in this one who make very chilling villains. They are willing to do anything to be beautiful and to control those who can wield such power. Inevitably, envy and jealousy are byproducts of a world that demands perfection. Though Camellia is the heroine of our story, she is not immune to these more ugly attributes. When one’s value is defined by how beautiful one is, morality takes a back seat and even Camellia find herself giving in when she knows she shouldn’t.
It’s clear from very early on that Camellia and the other Belles have been purposefully isolated from society. There is an undeniable innocence to them and they are told that vices like passion and even love can throw off the balance of their arcana, the essence of which makes them able to work their transformations. Whether this is true or not is yet to be determined, but I could not help but draw a parallel to how we as a society define beauty in girls. From doe-eyed models to lipsticks named Lolita, it sends the message that innocence is alluring and sexy, and any tainting of this especially with sexual experience, poisons the whole apple. This comes to a head when Camellia is attacked by one of her customers later on in the story. There is a particularly unnerving scene where Camellia is tasked with altering a woman’s body and with a writing instrument, marks the places that need to be improved. It was a jarring reminder of the stories I used to hear growing up of girls marking each other’s bodies with permanent marker, circling the parts they viewed as flaws.
I do wish we had the opportunity to get more acquainted with the other Belles. Though I do understand why they are kept separate from Camellia. Still, we are first introduced to these young women together and though some of them were driven by ambition and others by defiance, they form Camellia’s family and helped her become the person she is. We get a more complete glimpse of Camellia’s relationship with her sister Amber and though I wanted to worry over her like Camellia did, her unquestioned obedience and jealousy didn’t exactly endear her to me. I am much more interested in the rebellious Edel who I hope we get to see more of in the sequel. Another issue I had was the romance. While I can’t complain of the pacing as it feeds into the inexperience of Camellia, I fully admit I wasn’t moved personally by the allure of the love interest. I’ve always preferred the slow burn, so I’m awaiting the development of Camellia’s relationship with someone else.
Clayton’s writing is delicious, her story unique, and her commentary on beauty poignant. If you haven’t picked up The Belles yet, I encourage you to do so.