“A Great and Terrible Beauty” – Does a lesbian agenda belong in Young Adult Literature?

Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

Spoiler Alert!

A Great and Terrible Beauty begins in India with Gemma bickering with her mother. While Gemma takes off on her own in the market place, being a petulant teenager, she has a vision of her mother’s death. After her mother’s demise she is sent packing to a Victorian boarding school in England where she meets up with a horribly cliquish set of girls. These popular girls thrive on harassing others, playing pranks and lording their position in society over their classmates. Even though Gemma and her roomate, Ann, can see the cruelty of this clique they want to be included. Gemma gains admittance for herself and Ann by presenting a magical diary in exchange for their acceptance into the clique. The diary takes the girls on a path to contact supernatural forces. Through the journal they are instructed on setting up the Order, obviously the powers they are playing with are greater than their own. While in the cave the girls are roaring drunk, one of the girls kisses Gemma, and they talk about lesbians as they are beginning the Order.

Adult Point of View

I didn’t finish the book from this point because of the strange sensual nature of the scene in the cave. I skipped to the discussion questions to get further insight into the novel to see if it was something I was interested in finishing.

A Great and Terrible Beauty had a gripping opening chapter and the potential to be a chilling supernatural story. I initially lost interest when Gemma came to the English school filled with petty characters and cliques. I did not find the relationship Gemma had with the popular girls to be compelling, it seemed that Gemma should have more sense than to want to be included so desperately by girls that she despises on the surface. The sensuality of the cave and the idea of a “girl power” Order struck me as being odd. As I read the suggested discussion questions the themes of sensuality and a lesbian overtone was pervasive.

I do not recommend this book to young teen readers. Because of the social and emotional problems that occur when children begin having sex at an early age, it is inappropriate to include such lasciviousness in books geared to the young teen demographic. Nor is it appropriate to include a lesbian agenda in a young teen’s novel that may serve to titillate or exert undue influence on impressionable readers.

-the Mother

(The teen point of view is not present in this review because she was not allowed to read this novel.)


About Tales Untangled

I am a mother of four children and have a passion for reading. I love sharing my treasury of books with my kids. I also do experiments in cooking which includes such things as Indian Tandoori Chicken slow cooked in a tagine. Weekly I get together with friends and go to yoga for a bit of mommy time. Some may find me quirky, I prefer to think I am one of a kind.
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21 Responses to “A Great and Terrible Beauty” – Does a lesbian agenda belong in Young Adult Literature?

  1. Emmy says:

    Does a heterosexual agenda belong in Young Adult literature? 🙂

    They discuss the subject, and there is one brief kiss in a non-romantic context, but the girls in that particular book are clearly interested in romance with boys, not each other. Really, if you’re going to object to that book, object to the carrying on with boys and the representation of girls willing to throw their entire lives away for a great passion at such a young age, or the fact that several young female characters literally get away with murder. Murdering people is a lot more disturbing than same-sex flirting in my opinion.

    There are hints that two girls may have been a lesbian couple in the distant past, but that ends very badly and the survivor goes on to get married and have children and tries to forget the whole thing, which is sort of the opposite of a lesbian agenda.

    However, a young reader who is not comfortable with discussions of death and sexuality is not going to be well served by this book. This book is probably better read by those who are old enough to recognise how foolishly Gemma behaves.

    • I appreciate your comment. I also agree that girls throwing their lives away, carrying on with boys and murder are equally disturbing. My point is that any sexual agenda in young adult literature is inappropriate. I also stated that I had not finished the book because I did not see the value in doing so, and consequently did not get to the objectionable heterosexual relationships or murder. I am glad for your insight as to more reasons why young readers may want to steer clear of this book.

  2. Emma says:

    It’s a work of fiction, and quite beautifully done – it isn’t supposed to teach children or influence them, and I doubt any “impressionable” readers will take it as such. It is an expertly crafted work of art, and the characters are certainly not written as role models, rather they are wonderfully real, three dimensional people with flaws.
    Furthermore, there is nothing in this novel to suggest a lesbian “agenda.” It explores girlhood and the depths of friendship. And on the note of themes of lesbianism, how is that at all immoral?

    • I stand behind my review of “A Great and Terrible Beauty” because first, any book will influence our thoughts and beliefs regardless whether it is the intent of the author.

      Next, I disagree about it being well crafted in the development of characters, because the main characters seemed one dimensional and overly similar; fawning attitudes to those of a higher social class, petty, jealous and mean spirited. I never identified with any of the characters as possibly being real, because they never expressed a greater range of emotion. I am glad not to have friends like these girls.

      Next, I feel that there is a subtle lesbian agenda, for example, there was a sensual feeling in the cave where inhibitions were released and the “innocent” kiss shocked the protagonist. Also, discussion questions in the back of the book tended towards lesbian ideals. This book is not blatantly promoting sexual experimentation and an obvious lesbian agenda, it is subtle.

      Lastly, though it is not a popular stand, I must state that I believe any sexual relationship outside of marriage is immoral, regardless if it is homosexual or heterosexual. I don’t feel that books with sexual themes are appropriate for young teens because of the potential negative influence.

      I did not enjoy this book at all and I cannot recommend it.

      • Emma says:

        Too many people forget that the opinions of the character are not necessarily those of the author – a good author can make you both love and hate their characters. You say that you did not identify with the characters, but you also state that you did not finish the book, which means that you did not do them the justice of allowing them to become fully fleshed out. The characters are mostly teenaged girls in the eighteen hundreds – there are bound to be themes of both cattiness and classisim. That is part of what makes them both realistic and human.

        The book is also not intended for young teens, but late teens to early adulthood. I definitely agree that it is rather racey for ages 12-14 (“young” teens).

      • I am happy to see that you also feel that this is a book not intended for young teens. I also agree that good authors forge characters that we both love and hate. As I skimmed through the rest of the book I did not see further character development. It is possible that the characters did develop, however, it would have had to have been in about the last third of the book. I found I didn’t enjoy any of the characters in this particular book.

        As you can tell my teen daughter is still young and I filter through books with her development in mind. You will find in other reviews that I do allow her to read most of the books on the blog, though some are edited for her.

      • Emma says:

        Furthermore, just because the characters have sexual desires, and are portrayed as such, does not mean the author is glorifying premarital sex. In this particular novel, the characters struggle with their sexuality and desires, as many teens will and do, especially in such a repressive environment. Its just a part of humanity.

      • Human sexuality is part of living life. My stand is simply, what are we allowing young children to read and what effect does it have on them? Over the last ten years the young adult genre has gone from pretty squeaky clean to, at times, racey and in fact explicit. I just believe as parents we should make informed decisions in what our children are reading and watching.

  3. bella says:

    I, for one, really enjoyed Great and Terrible. I am a 13-year-old girl (as you said, a “young teen”) and did not even barely notice any kind of lesbian agenda in it. Upon looking back at the book, I do acknowledge there may be a slight promotion of lesbian ideals, but that was certainly not the author’s goal. I have several friends, also young teens, who have read and enjoyed this novel with no sudden tendancy towards lesbian ideals or actions. The goals of this book, in my view were to promote friendship, illustrated by Gemma’s relationship with the popular girls and Ann, bringing them all together as friends and effectively stopping Felicity and Pippa’s former bullying, which adds an anti-bullying element into the mix. The characters are as real as any other characters in works set in the Victorian Era. Another important themes was family and love, shown by Gemma’s relationship with her family, especially her heartfelt desire to have her mother alive again. This novel is promoting friendship, kindness, and the overall value of love. Will you really hide that from those such as your young daughter. Tales Untangled, because of a barely noticable message of acceptance towards homosexuality?

    • It was interesting to read your perspective that this book promotes friendship and familial love. I found the girl’s friendship to be very trivial compared to the friendships I have had in my life. As for familial love, Gemma’s mother was gone and I didn’t see her try to make any connection with her father, who was alive (though honestly it should be the parent who reaches out to the child).
      My main goal is to educate readers so that they can make the choices that will be right for them and their children, and though this book may have been good for you it is not right for many others. I believe that other books my child has read have much better moral lessons than “A Great and Terrible Beauty”, such as, “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Les Miserables”. I am glad that you enjoy reading and hope that you find many books that you enjoy.

  4. Ellie says:

    You think a simple kiss indicate a “lesbian agenda” (and what is that, by the way, because really, if you think that gay people have an “agenda….” Anyway, I wouldn’t advise you read the third one if you think the first one is too “lesbian”.

    And personally, I think that if your daughter is a teenager she should be in full control over her literature. And a single kiss between two girls shouldn’t rule a fantastic story out.

    • Actually I didn’t think just a single kiss indicated a lesbian agenda. As I read the group discussion questions in the back of the novel I found themes that are common soapbox issues for lesbians, which in addition to the kiss, led me to believe their is a subtle agenda. My concern is the over-sexualization of young children in our society, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual. Each person has to choose when THEIR child is prepared emotionally to read books that have sensual or sexual content. My purpose in writing reviews is to help parents make informed choices, but the choice is theirs.

      I was hoping to enjoy a historical fiction book when I picked up A Great and Terrible Beauty and can easily accept a supernatural element, but I was disappointed in the setting and characters. If I had felt that A Great and Terrible Beauty was a fantastically written story I might have felt differently about the sensuality within the novel. Both my daughter and I loved Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo which present some human sexuality, but in a moral context. We also loved Ender’s Game which is terribly violent. It is the writing and intent of the author that made all the difference.

      I was also offended by Gemma sacrificing her personal values to fit in with the popular, catty girls. I am appalled to see intelligent young women bow to pressure and to lose their personal strength and convictions. Weak women do nothing to help our girls find their own strength. I am also offended by murder and girl’s throwing their lives away for a passion that will not last. I found the entire story to be grating.

      You are correct that I would not want to read the third installment in this series (or the second). I appreciate your comments so that other who disagree with me can read your perspective and make an informed choice in their reading.

  5. Lory says:

    I was interested in learning about A Great and Terrible Beauty and upon reading the synposis I thought it was an adult novel. After more digging around I discovered this book is in fact a YA novel. After reading your review and other people’s replies to it, I must congratulate you for standing your ground. I for one would be appalled to see my young teen reading a novel of this caliber. As a parent it is my responsibility to censure what she reads (12-15 yrs). Unfortunately parents have become too complacent and have allowed today’s culture to expose our innocent children (and yes young teens are still children!) to adult content. What’s more parents seem to think this is okay! No doubt I will be thought of as too repressive or strict. But really what does a young teen gain from early exposure to this type of content? These opinions are my own.

    • I am so grateful that you have posted your comment so that others will know that they are not alone when they parent their children by helping them make appropriate choices for their age. Hooray!

  6. Pingback: >Does This Book Have a Lesbian Agenda and Is It Appropriate For YA To Read? | Book Review, Summary | BookRack

  7. Hilary says:

    Kid Point Of View

    May I begin by asking you something? If you have not read the book how do you have any right to notice a certain ‘theme’ or pass any judgment on it? Faulty logic, right off the bat. I read this book when I was 12 and I really enjoyed it! It was a fun read and in no way did it “titillate or exert undue influence on impressionable readers”. In fact at that time I was just starting to understand about non-hetero relationships and the relationship between pippa and felicity just showed me that a lesbian relationship is like any other..it’s about love. I’m still a teenager right now and I don’t see why you would prevent your teen from reading this book. In my AP English class we read “classic” novels with gratuitous depictions of murder, sex, and rape. I.E. Dostoevsky, Alexendar Dumas, Graham Greene. But after reading these books I am not influenced to commit murder or have sex. These books allow me to appreciate the work itself, appreciate the author’s craft and certainly they cause me to think and wonder, and at times they do influence me but they don’t cause me to blindly act out on a whim. Going back to a great and terrible beauty, after reading that entire series I was not inspired to become a lesbian. If that’s your concern that your teen will be influenced by reading this book I don’t think you should be worried. (: because in one way or another she’ll find out about non-hetero relationships and if that is her inclination, preventing her from reading a book will not stop it. I think your ‘concern’ may stem from your conventional and outdated beliefs on what constitutes “proper love” and I encourage you to educate yourself about lesbians and teenagers.

    • Truly you could have read the stream of comments to answer your questions, however, in response I did read the majority of the book to know that I did not enjoy the author’s writing style, the themes that had been presented or the characters. I also noted that I did not feel this book was appropriate for YOUNG teens. You are correct that literature addresses many difficult subjects, and those themes are discussed in a school setting. I have also noticed that the mature themes discussed in school tend to be when students are 17 and 18 years old and it is essential that teens learn to think and grow from literature to help them shape their understanding of the world. The purpose of this blog is to help parents know the content of books to determine if they feel that their child is ready to read a particular book. I hope this helps you and expands your point of view that there will be others who disagree with you. 🙂 Best Wishes.

      • Hilary says:

        I see where you are coming from; I was hesitant about what you posted after you spoke of not finishing the book. I feel that true critics, read from cover to cover. And it’s something I’ve always done, even with a series like Twilight just because before I can criticize something I have to have a thorough and perfected understanding of it. Having read all three books at a young age I merely meant to say that, in my opinion, the themes present in this book were not obscene or explicit and they were not themes that younger girls aren’t already exposed to. In fact, I got this book from one of my friends who got it from one of her friends who had read it and liked it. If you had read the entire series I think you would notice that the ‘lesbian agenda’ isn’t really how you describe it and it is just about love. That aside, I’ve been reading your reviews for quite a while to find new books to read and you do a standout job so thank you 😀

      • I am glad to hear that you are someone who loves books too. I was actually hesitant to post a review on A Great and Terrible Beauty because it is one of the few books that I did not finish, nevertheless, I felt like I should also try to explain why I didn’t finish it.

        You are correct that young people are exposed to a lot of things that I had never heard of when I was 13 years old.

        I also take suggestions if you feel like I should review a book for the website, particularly a book that you think others would love to read.

        I loved receiving your comments. Thank you!

      • Hilary says:

        I will not lie young adult novels are my guilty pleasure, probably because they take away from all the gloom and doom of the books I have to read in AP English, but I would love to see a review on Unearthly by Cynthia Hand. The themes are tried and true, but there’s something refreshing about the main character and one thing that struck me is the relationships in this novel are actually healthy..compared to the relationships I see in most teen-oriented novels. I think you would approve, at least in the relationship aspect, but I’d love to see your full take on it (:

      • I will definitely take a look. Thanks a bunch!

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