I want to start by saying that I think a lot of people really will like this book, in the same way that a lot of people liked Red Queen, which was another book I didn't get on with. I just didn't enjoy it myself and I'm glad it's over. The only reason this isn't a one-star review is because of the representation. There aren't enough books with a non-white lead and it was good to see one here. Plus, the gorgeous cover (I'm a tart for beautiful book covers).
So. I found The Belles to be a pretty boring, shallow book with nothing I haven't read before, a load of characters that didn't get developed one iota and a whole bunch of telling-not-showing.
The central message of this book is, 'Society is dangerously obsessed with a narrow view of beauty and this is a bad thing'. Well, yes. I know. I don't need 450 pages of fluff to tell me that. What I wanted to see was a society dangerously obsessed with a narrow view of beauty AND AN MC WHO WAS GOING TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. And this was not what I got.
Camellia was boring. She had literally no thoughts in her head other than about people's appearances. She had no interests other than in beauty products and treatments. She seemed utterly clueless that the world she lived in, where people went for monthly Mystical Plastic Surgeries was bad. In the end, when she does try to bring about change, it's not against the toxic society she lives in but against a ridiculous comic-book baddie. Her narrative is filled with observations on what people and things look like and what people and things smell like and hearing her asinine thoughts for 450-odd pages was like being stuck inside the head of an extra off of TOWIE. Until the end of time.
She was also weak. She gets asked to do something about halfway through the book - it's a pretty big, important something and it's painfully obviously the morally right thing to do, only she dithers and delays her decision on whether to do it because if she gets found out she would be in a world of pain. Coward.
And if Camellia was dull, the supporting characters were paper-thin. Didn't really get a handle on them. Didn't care about them. The romance was cheesy, like a personification of the YA Brooding Hero (Twitter: @YAbroodingHero). It was no surprise that Orleans society placed such emphasis on external beauty when all the people living in it were utterly shallow and utterly hollow.
It's incredibly derivative of lots of other YA dystopians out there - The Jewel and The Selection spring instantly to mind. You know, the thing where the world looks really nice and fluffy, and the girls wander around in huge Gone With The Wind dresses but underneath it's all pretty rotten? In fact, take a look at the cover of the French version of The Belles - remind you of anything?
The writing was okay and I did get a feel for what the world looked like (steampunk Cypress Gardens) but the dialogue was clunky and there weird nouns with no explanation as to what they actually were. Things like a Belle-bun, Belle-trunk, Belle-rose. We don't actually get told how a Belle-bun differs from, you know, a normal bun. Or how a Belle-trunk differs from a normal trunk, other than a Belle-trunk is owned by a Belle.
I wanted to like this book so much, but I didn't enjoy it at all. Boo.