Mystery and romance swirl together in young adult novel ‘The Beautiful’

Renée Ahdieh uses the lush backdrop of New Orleans to create a supernatural thriller geared to older teens. 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Beautiful” by Renée Ahdieh, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 425 pp.

If macabre supernatural mysteries give you the good kind of goosebumps, you'll want to pick up Renée Ahdieh’s “The Beautiful,” a dark young adult tale set in 1870s New Orleans. 

As with 2015’s “The Wrath and the Dawn,” Ahdieh has created a sensory feast. Watery silks, rough planks. Powdered beignets and rich crème pâtissière. Young men who smell of bergamot and leather. Bells tolling across midnight plazas. Whirling waltzes at a masquerade ball. As if with ink and watercolor, Ahdieh pairs sharp lines with a delicate feathering of interior color. But “The Beautiful” is awash in even darker tones than “Wrath” – caveat lector.

Teenaged Celine Rousseau arrives in New Orleans during Carnival with no money, few acquaintances, and a recent trauma she desperately wants to conceal. Ahdieh educes Celine’s secret in a tantalizingly slow drip: Celine fled Paris ... after one horrible night ... about which she lied to her father ... because she murdered a man ... who tried to rape her. If her crime is uncovered, Celine could be hanged. For now, she and several other single girls are contracted to stay and work at the Ursuline convent until the nuns find suitable husbands for them.

Celine is wild, improper, and headstrong, wanting to jump into life feet first rather than observe it at a remove. “Celine had never been an appropriate role model,” Ahdieh writes. “She laughed too loudly at bawdy jokes, and enjoyed eating at social events at which girls were to be seen rather than sated.”

In the wake of the assault, she’s also increasingly obsessed with power and control. The Mother Superior accuses her of possessing “the kind of reckless spirit that craves danger,” and she’s right. Danger seems to follow (and thrill) Celine wherever she goes, and it’s followed her across the Atlantic Ocean.

When a fellow convent resident is brutally murdered, Celine finds herself entangled with Sébastien Saint Germain, the sexy young scion of a prominent family and the leader of La Cour des Lions, a crew with unsettling gifts. Inhuman, whispers Celine’s intuition. Members call Bastien fiend, devil, demon – are they really joking? 

Bastien and Celine exchange smoldering volleys of animosity, arrogance, and allure. It’s one of those hate-you-so-much-I-love you scorchers: pulse racing, jaw clenching, repartee crackling. 

More murders occur, and somehow they’re all connected to Celine. She panics: Should she try to unmask the killer, or run away again to prevent more blood on her hands? What’s going on in New Orleans, and who, really, is Sébastien Saint Germain?

Ahdieh has a real knack for mystery, sprinkling murky clues and murkier inner monologues throughout the book. More than once I found myself confidently predicting the next step, only to watch the truth carom in another direction. 

And amid the supernatural forces, opulent backdrops, and Shakespeare-stippled dialogue, Ahdieh takes the time to expand a few critical motifs. 

For one, she gives young Celine the space to test out reactions to uncertainty or danger, inward-facing social experiments that teenagers run (even if unconsciously). Celine’s wheels turn constantly: Do I charge in, brash and overconfident? Do I deploy whatever charm or slipperiness I can muster? Do I bury my head in the sand, or run? Some work, some don’t; Celine figures it out as she goes along. And thanks to a straightforward detective who sees right through her, Celine’s live beta testing forces her to find strategies that feel authentic.

More crucial, however, is Ahdieh’s portrayal of a rape survivor just weeks after the trauma, trying to process the ethics of self-defense and acknowledge the seeming presence of good and bad qualities within herself.

“Celine Rousseau was a girl who believed in justice. That young man had meant to rape her – to destroy her, body and soul. Was it wrong for her to destroy him instead?” Ahdieh asks. “Could Celine Rousseau be a girl who valued life, as well as a girl who had taken it from someone, without a shred of remorse?”

Dangling in the abyss, pursued by a monster and haunted by her past, Celine resolves to be a survivor instead of a victim. As Sébastien puts it, “I am not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, nor am I the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

“The Beautiful” is a gripping and sultry novel. Due to violent, gory, and sensual content, I wouldn’t recommend it for the younger YA set (especially if they’re easily scared or grossed out). But for those who can handle the dark, “The Beautiful” will thrill, and its duology partner, “The Damned” (expected in June), ought to be a doozy.

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