Review: Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
Released: September 4th 2012
Format: Hardcover (295 pages)
Source: My local library
Fierce, seductive mermaid Syrenka falls in love with Ezra, a young naturalist. When she abandons her life underwater for a chance at happiness on land, she is unaware that this decision comes with horrific and deadly consequences.

Almost one hundred forty years later, seventeen-year-old Hester meets a mysterious stranger named Ezra and feels overwhelmingly, inexplicably drawn to him. For generations, love has resulted in death for the women in her family. Is it an undiagnosed genetic defect . . . or a curse? With Ezra’s help, Hester investigates her family’s strange, sad history. The answers she seeks are waiting in the graveyard, the crypt, and at the bottom of the ocean—but powerful forces will do anything to keep her from uncovering her connection to Syrenka and to the tragedy of so long ago.

Monstrous Beauty is a dark, hauntingly heart-wrenching tale of love, mystery and sacrifice. Words might just fail me for this review.

Fama interweaves two stories in the plot of Monstrous Beauty – one being set in modern day with Hester on her quest to find out how to solve her family curse and the other being mermaid Syrenka's story, set from the 1600s onwards. I was hooked from the prologue. Fama's mermaids don't sing to lure men to their deaths, nor are they the gentle kind. The way they finish off their prey men is shocking, gruesome and completely awesome. That said, only Syrenka's story kept me reading beyond the first quarter of the novel as Hester's story hadn't quite picked up pace yet. Hester took a while to settle upon her goal and figure out how to solve her problem. Other than that, there were no other major problems with this book. Once I got past the first quarter, I read into the night because I just couldn't put it down!

In my opinion, Hester isn't really the main character, nor is Syrenka. You'll know when you read the novel – you'll be asking yourself whose story this is and when you find out, it's that OhIseeohmygodthattotallymakessense moment. Hester is smart and can think on her feet, but at the same time she's confused and hurt about falling in love. Why?

Because in Hester's family, you die if you get married and have kids. Hester lost her mother at birth because of that, and so did her mother's mother, and so on.

Hester's afraid of becoming close to anyone. She's afraid of falling in love, yet is also angry at why she can't allow herself to. The closest someone has gotten to her is her best friend, Peter. I thought it was a nice change from having a weak heroine who's so scared of falling in love that she doesn't want to do anything about it. Meanwhile, you have the enigmatic, immortal Syrenka who is looking for love and is not afraid of almost anything. They're a beautiful contrast to each other.

I've given much thought as to why Monstrous Beauty is so riveting. The plot could not have been pulled off if it weren't for Fama's diverse and believable characters. Each of their (back)stories is compelling and just simply out of this world. Linnie spooked me at first, but then gave me an incredibly heavy heart. Pastor McKee was likeable in the beginning, though I really pitied him towards the end of the novel. Eleanor Onstaan is so damn warped and freaked me out – her motivation is believable. And Ezra... Ezra is now on my list of book boyfriends. His 17th century-style manners and speech completely won me over, and Hester's description of him is so swoon-worthy.

Fama's clear writing brings across strong imagery such as Syrenka's mannerisms, not to mention how she looks like:
Ezra examined the sharp, bonyspined dorsal fin on [Syrenka's] neck and upper back, the small, razorsharp fins that followed the line of her thumb on the undersides of her wrists, and the webbing between her fingers.
There is also a noticeable fluidity in her writing style, which she switches from one time period to the next. It was comfortable to read, yet brought across suspense. History and mystery peeled off layer by layer in Syrenka's story while stakes became higher and higher in Hester's story. The two concurrent stories kept the tale fast-paced and full of excitement. The plot is just so brilliantly woven.

Fama never fails to surprise either; Monstrous Beauty is very unpredictable and I loved that very much. This novel drove me to the edge of my seat, gave me chills, shattered my heart and left me breathless. Monstrous Beauty is not just about mermaids. It's full of danger, love, folklore, history and magic – I seriously don't want to spoil it for you. You have to read this enthralling book!

For those of you who've read Monstrous Beauty, Fama has written a beautiful companion novella set in the same world. You can read it for free here.

Monstrous Beauty has definitely secured a spot in my top 10 books for 2014. I'll leave you with my favourite quote from this novel:
“You're not a dork, you're adorkable.” — Peter

I am vastly over-educated. I attended the University of Chicago, where I received a BA in Biology with honors, an MBA, and a PhD in Economics and Finance. I should probably have majored in Literature instead.

My husband is John H. Cochrane, a talented economist whose books sell better than mine. We have four young-adult children, all artist-scholars, and boisterous family dinners with lots of vegetables and swearing. For fun I jog every day, swim in Lake Michigan (when it's not ice), and play tennis a few times a week. You run faster than I do, but I can beat you on the court.

Look for me on Twitter and Tumblr. I guarantee I'll say something embarrassing.

Check out her website here.

*** Elizabeth Fama is the author of Plus One (FSG, 2014), Monstrous Beauty (FSG, 2012), a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults selection and Odyssey Award honour winner, and Overboard (Cricket Books, 2002), an ALA Best Books for Young Adults. She is represented by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc. ***

Get your copy of Monstrous Beauty!


  1. I absolutely loved this one. Dark and hauntingly beautiful! Your review is sure to snag the attention of other readers!

  2. I haven't heard of this book before but it does sound gorgeous and amazing! Great review :)

    -Kimi at Geeky Chiquitas

    1. It is indeed a gorgeous and amazing book, and thank you! (:


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