“Wild Beauty” is a magical realism tale steeped in family, race, class, and beauty. We follow our main characters, Estrella and Fel, as they navigate defining themselves, or redefining in Estrella’s case and what space they occupy in the gorgeous gardens of La Pradera, a garden that has cursed the women of Estrella’s family to lose all their lovers, and if they themselves try to leave, it will kill them too. I loved the undercurrent of malevolence always present in the gorgeous botanical garden, and the slight mystery that, that posed, especially when it came to how Fel arrived in the garden in the first place. But that mystery was very, very slow to unravel, which is typical for magical realism I’m finding, but makes me think that this genre and I are just never going to get along.
The lyrical prose of this novel is truly lovely, and I loved how feminist, diverse, and gender queer this book was with its characters. Truly, I loved each time the Nomeolvides women pointed out the double standards between what men could get away with, that women could not. I loved how effortless the representation of a bi main character was woven into this story. I can’t speak to the representation of the Nomeolvides and their culture, but I did enjoy how it was presented throughout the story. And while the family dynamics are intriguing, the mother’s and grandmother’s felt more like shadows rather than a firm presence in the book. With how lovely the writing is, with these girls able to bring beautiful flowers to life by digging their fingers into the dirt, I truly did expect to love this book more and just fly through it. I wanted to know who Fel was and where he came from, I wanted the girls to not lose the woman they all loved, I was rooting for them to break the curse, but the book moved so slowly that, at times, I forgot what it was even about.
I’m fine with books starting off slow and building up to something. It makes the escalation of the plot all the more savory to me personally. But “Wild Beauty” maintains that same meandering pace throughout. There was no sense of urgency, and the dialogue was so sparse compared to long pages of introspection that the characters actually speaking to one another was clunky and didn’t actually achieve anything. Fel appears in their garden one day after they pray to the garden to spare the girl they love, and it just never seemed like they tried that hard to figure out who he was or where he came from. Despite him not remembering even his name, the girls just never seemed to do much digging (heh) of their own into who this boy was either. Had they done more of that, and built up to something, the reveals at the end could have held more of an emotional impact for me. As it was, because of the pacing, I didn’t feel much of anything toward the end.
I will admit that I had high expectations for this book. It’s gorgeous and so many of the reviews I trust loved this story. With good reason, to be sure! But you have to be a fan of the structure of magical realism, you have to be ok accepting that the star of this book is the way the author weaves their prose together and the lyricism that follows. This is my second magical realism novel, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book I read either, which leads me to believe that this is just not going to be a genre I connect much to, but that’s ok! If you’re into primarily beautiful fantasy writing, you’d probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did, hence the 3 stars because it wasn’t the hardest book to follow all things considered, but I’d have liked something with better pacing.
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