Beauty is often so glamorized that we see women as objects one moment and goddesses the next.
The glamorizing of beauty also leads to people spending thousands of dollars on make-up, plastic surgery, implants, and more. The cost of beauty also takes a physical, emotional, and mental toll as mind and bodies suffer from things such as self-hate, eating disorders, and even death. If beauty were an actual woman with god-like abilities, then society might be a lot like the world of Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles.
In the world of Orléans, Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, one with the power to control Beauty. With beauty as a commodity, the Belles are revered and coveted by all, particularly favored by Orléans’ royal family. When Camellia comes to court, she discovers how far one royal would go to be the most beautiful and must make a crucial decision to use her powers for better or worst.
One of the best aspects of this book is its dazzling world-building. Combining aspects of the regional culture of New Orleans, the modern day beauty industry, and elements of fantasy and horror, it has loveliness that belies something sinister just beneath the surface. This is especially telling in the prologue of the book, which details how the Goddess of Beauty created the Belles after the God of the Sky cursed humans with “the skin the color of a sunless sky, eyes the shade of blood, hair the texture of rotten straw, and a deep sadness that quickly turned to madness.”
A particularly interesting aspect of the world-building is how beauty standards constantly shift to capitalize on new trends and different looks being valued. Belles can change a person’s hair type, waist, skin tone, and more according to what is popular. However, there are still restrictions and rules, such as noses not being too slender to breathe with and older citizens above seventy not looking younger than their age. It makes the reader consider how the beauty industry interacts with consumers in real life and how confining beauty standards are.
Another part of the book I enjoyed was the book’s heroine, Camellia Beauregard. She is a complicated character in that she is driven to be the best while wanting to bring out the best beauty in others. At one point in the book, she states she wants to use her power as a Belle to make others love themselves. This desire is juxtaposed with her position as the Favorite, the Belle to the royal family. Since she is required to put the tradition of the Belles and the desires of the royal family before her own, it is interesting to watch her internal struggle, especially since she has a flighty spirit.
Revolving around Camellia’s character is an impressive cast of secondary and supporting characters. These characters can be divided between the Belles’ inner circle and those outside it. The most important people involved with the Belles include the royal family of Princess Sophia and Queen Celeste, the Belles’ guardian Madame Du Barry, and an older, former Belle named Ivy. Although only seen in certain parts of the book, Camellia’s sisters also play a supportive role as an emotional lifeline.
In fact, Camellia’s emotional lifelines become a strong presence in her life due to her strong friendships with other women and her connection to her late mother Maman. Camellia’s sisters, particularly Ambrosia (aka Amber) and Edelweiss have notable bonds with Camellia that are a mix of competitive and loyal. Other friendships that were surprisingly enjoyable were that of Camellia and her servant Bree, Camellia and her stoic yet soft bodyguard Rémy, and Camellia and Ivy (which had the air of a mentor-mentee relationship as well).
One flaw of the book is how Camellia seems “stuck” at the royal palace despite knowing that there is something sinister going on. While it is understandable that her position as a Belle and the Favorite prevents her from leaving the palace unless she sneaks out, there could have been more snooping going on within the palace. As interesting as it is to see Camellia go about her duties and be receptive to secrets that way, the plot seems to plod without her leaving the palace more.
Another issue of the book is its treatment of a gay supporting character in the book. While the author does make better nods towards LGBTQ characters in certain parts of the book through its mention of trans characters and having an important secondary female character have a lady lover, the depiction of the character Valerie was in poor taste due to how she is violently killed off. While the intent was probably to demonstrate the cruelty of a certain character, LGBTQ readers might find this scene triggering.
Despite its flaws, The Belles is a dazzling, dark, and thoughtful examination of the beauty industry. Although it is set in an alternate world, The Belles has a glamorous yet eerie dystopian element that is worth paying attention to. Beneath the dresses and magic lie brutal truths about the costs of beauty standards and why they must change for the better.