Review: “A Terrible Beauty,” Nancy Baker

Pros: Intimate, engaging relationship drama
Cons: A little predictable, but it’s the journey that matters
Rating: 4 out of 5

Nancy Baker’s A Terrible Beauty is a gender-swapped “Beauty and the Beast” in which the Beast is a two-thousand-year-old vampire named Sidonie Moreau and Beauty is a dissolute artist named Matthew Donovan. Matthew’s father, Simon, met Sidonie 20 years earlier and had an affair with her, although he never knew what she was. However, she’d been acting as his research assistant, and after she vanished he claimed her work as his own, becoming moderately famous in his field. Now she has sent him a letter saying that if he does not come to visit her, and stay a while, she will reveal his falsehood to the world. However, Simon is not well. His youngest son Matthew, an artist who likes to drink, do drugs, and sleep around, ends up going in his stead to find out what Sidonie wants. Once Matthew finds out what Sidonie is, she starts asking him each night whether he will give her his blood to drink, even though it might kill him. He always answers no, and looks for ways to escape–her home is in the middle of nowhere, and she could easily catch up to him before he reaches the train station. The villagers who work for her also don’t wish to help Matthew against her, even if they do sympathize. When the vampire who created Sidonie shows up unexpectedly with his hangers-on, Matthew’s about to find out what most vampires are really like.

This is a relatively gradual and low-action story. I didn’t have trouble focusing in the beginning, however, because it’s very easy to read between the lines and pick up on the fact, very early on, that Sidonie is not human. It’s clear to the reader, if not to Matthew, that the young woman he meets when he arrives at Sidonie’s house is actually Sidonie, not her daughter. She never eats, he only sees her at night, and the house contains no mirrors. The villagers who live nearby and who do her shopping and bring her supplies call her “the old one”. Matthew spends his days painting and exploring the house, frustrated beyond belief that he has no idea why he’s there, but he’s not allowed to leave. He knows she could kill him any time she wanted–so why doesn’t she?

Tal is the vampire who created Sidonie, and he is a cruel, malicious creature. He and his followers find it fascinating that Sidonie obviously hasn’t fed from Matthew, and there’s some question as to whether or not they’ll abide by the rules that keep them from touching him.

There are some episodes that keep things from being entirely slow. Matthew of course has to try to escape at least once. He visits the nearby village a couple of times, and nearly has a breakdown from taking a drug his friends gave him before he left. He and Sidonie gradually become more aware of each other’s dark places, and it isn’t that hard to figure out where things will go, but it’s the journey that’s so interesting. I love the details of the complex relationship that evolves between the two. They both end up winning my heart even though they’re each somewhat unlikable in their own way at first.

All in all this is a lovely book, and a very good vampire novel.

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