Wild Beauty, Anna-Marie McLemore (Feiwel and Friends 978-1-250-12455-5, $17.99, 352pp, hc) October 2017.
Entering into the lush, gorgeous garden of writing that infuses Anna-Marie McLemore’s Wild Beauty, readers are lulled into thinking that what lies before them is a diversionary romance with moments of peril neatly inserted into a plot whose happily-ever-after ending is pre-ordained from the start. This, of course, is probably what McLemore wants readers to think; how she wants to initially fool them with her tale of five cousins in love with the same girl and consumed with apparently childish and predictable trials and tribulations. But then, as the cousins reveal the mysterious past of the Nomeolvides women and their unbreakable ties to the grounds of La Pradera, McLemore’s true purpose becomes clear. Wild Beauty is about a mystery rooted in a curse with more than a passing nod to Alice Hoffman’s sharp and deceptive romantic fantasies. Every description in this novel is beautiful, except the horrific tragedy at its center and the dangerous villain determined to rip the Nomeolovides women apart.
The cousins are the five only daughters of five only daughters of five only daughters and the three generations have always lived on the grounds of the La Pradera estate, working the gardens for their benefactress, estate owner Marjorie Briar. Marjorie has recently passed away, however, leaving the property to her granddaughter Bay, and it is Bay that 16-year-old Estrella and her four cousins all love. Their immediate problem is not the inherent conflict of a mutual crush, however, but that the teens are the subject of a curse and loving Bay could mean her death. McLemore writes:
For as long as anyone had memory, longer than the Nomeolvides women had been at La Pradera, each generation had borne five daughters. Only daughters, always five, like the petals on a forget-me-not. And ever since La Pradera had gotten its hold on them, sure and hard as a killing frost, every generation of five daughters had been trapped in these gardens, like their hearts were buried in the earth.
Nothing good came from the love of Nomeolvides women.
Five years ago, Calla’s father had vanished. Before him, the traveling salesman who’d stayed at La Pradera longer than he’d stayed anywhere in a decade, all because he’d fallen in love with Abuela Flor’s bright laugh. And before him, a man who collected old maps, and who became more a father to Gloria than the man who’d given her half her blood.
Clearly, there is something dark at work in La Pradera, a place where Estrella and her cousins, just like their mothers and grandmothers, create immense beauty through their magical connection to the ground, yet can never leave and are doomed to literally lose those whom they love. Now the youngest generation loves Bay, placing her in danger, and without Bay’s stewardship of the estate the entire family’s future is in peril. The young Nomeolvides women need La Pradera to set them free from the curse and so, in the opening pages, the five cousins work a spell which results in the garden giving them a young man named Fel who has no memory of his life before, but knows that something terrible happened to him and everything is about to change. Just what this means to the gardens, the Nomeolvides, and Bay is unclear, but something is most certainly going to happen.
As Wild Beauty‘s slow spell is revealed to readers, there is also an undercurrent of straight up mystery to follow as Bay’s home is invaded by a marauding family member intent on his own dark purpose. As everyone searches for various, stubbornly hidden truths, from Bay’s Nancy Drewesque research to the cousins studying the earth (and poor Fel just trying to remember something), McLemore ratchets up the tension with each page. The big reveal is equal parts historically intriguing and fantastically powerful, giving a payoff to all those who fall for these complicated, passionate and quite entertaining characters.
Finally, on top of everything else, McLemore’s straightforward introduction of the gender diverse Bay, and the grand sweeping lesbian romance that fills her heart, is a wonderful addition to this thoroughly complex and outstanding collection of characters. Wild Beauty is, indeed, the sweeping love story (actually stories!) that readers will suspect from its early pages, but it is also a dark and rich puzzle filled with language that suffuses the senses with both luxuriant beauty and the horrors of decay. This is a beautiful book and Bay and the Nomeolvides women (all of them), are complex characters most welcome to YA literature.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the October 2017 issue of Locus.