Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore
Feiwal and Friends, Oct 2017
Reviewed from ARC
**Mild Spoilers Ahead**
We talk about contenders (for the most part) in these individual posts. We talk about books that pull at us, books that swallow us, books “of exceptional merit” (whatever that might mean). We talk about books like Wild Beauty. I offer the full disclosure that queer fairy tales will always capture my attention, and knowing already what McLemore can do with a little magic and some flowers, I have been excited for this YA novel since the Publisher’s Weekly Rights Report announcement last year. I’m so thrilled to talk about it as part of the importance of visibility and self-determination that National Coming Out Day recognizes.
Look almost anywhere for descriptions or reviews of Wild Beauty and you will encounter the word “lush.” It’s not a word that does this book justice in the literal, for La Pradera, the novel’s main setting and home of the Nomeolvides women, is indescribably luxuriant and abundant in the flowers that each of the women draws from the earth. Nor is “lush” sufficient in the figurative as McLemore weaves layer after countless layer of rich nuance and emotion into her narrative, which uses the devastation and exuberance of family as the backdrop for a bewitching fairy tale.
Estrella and her four cousins—there are always five women and no sons born to each generation of the Nomeolvides family—were all raised on the stories from their mothers and their grandmothers about their family’s curse: if any of the Nomeolvides women loves too deeply, their lover will vanish. When all five realize that they love the same woman, Bay Briar, they frantically try to ensure her survival by offering treasured possessions to La Pradera, the land on which generations of Nomeolvides women have produced flowers and to which they are all bound. To their shock, La Pradera answers their plea…with a boy. Unable to remember who he is or where he is from, the mysterious Fel (named for a torn label in his 100-year-old clothes) joins the women as he tries to puzzle together his past, and each piece that slides into place reveals more of the danger and deep roots of the land and the Nomeolvides family.
(You are welcome to pause and quickly purchase the book at this point…I’ll wait.)
Now, we started this post with an invocation of contention and award criteria. A pretty narrative is all well and fine—a masterful, captivating narrative that centers cisqueer women of color and doesn’t shy away from descriptions of menstruation is all the better. But how that mastery intersects with queerness and distinguishes itself as being of the exceptional merit demanded by the Stonewall award is the million-dollar question. This YA narrative has multiple areas of nuanced queer representation, though there are few labels bandied about: for example, Estrella is on-the-page bisexual, all five cousins discuss their love and attraction for Bay (who uses she/her pronouns and presents as possibly genderqueer or non-binary), and Fel’s brother loves other men. And for all this visible queerness, Estrella and her cousins’ explorations of their identities and who they love is deftly folded into their concern that their family’s curse will destroy those they love…
“That was the dangerous thing. Not that she and her cousins all spoke the language of loving boys and girls, but that they all shared the legacy of losing them (243).”
All of which is further enveloped by their considerations of what it means to be a Nomeolvides woman with the power to call flowers up from the land yet the inability to leave the very same land lest they die. To top it off, the cousins’ queerness—their attraction to women as well as men—becomes a key point as La Pradera’s hidden history and its implications for the family are slowly revealed.
More than this, the book, in both content and structure, is an ode to fluidity—a love letter to the riotous potential of the non-fixed, the non-binary, the non-normative. The fluidity of being attracted to and loving a person as a person, greater than the sum of their gender:
“Estrella had fallen in love twice. They had been different not because one was a woman and one was a boy, but because one was Bay and one was Fel (243).”
The unfixedness of being an immigrant:
“unnamed, unaccounted for…The ones left off role sheets because they were not worth the trouble to write down (266).”
The spectrum of brown skin and biculturalism that yields a bright, polyphonous cadence of narration and dialogue in one language bestrewn with phrases from another.
The non-uniformity of womanhood and the dissonance of not only occupying the space between childhood and adulthood, but of growing into an almost pre-decided family role as well as into a unique individual.
Through all this fluidity, captured so skillfully as to make it look easy, this book uplifts a theme of self-determination—a quality so critical to the queer, POC, immigrant, and other marginalized communities—without veering into the desert of the didactic. It includes magic so intricately woven into the characters’ identities and the plot’s development that one is hard-pressed to assign a genre, relying instead on that most fluid of labels, magical realism. And even the author insists that books (Wild Beauty included) are always in flux, brought to life by each individual reader in their own way.
This intersectional, #ownvoices book is exceptional—the book that I (and I suspect the author) needed as a baby QPOC and one that SLJ, Kirkus, and Booklist have all enthusiastically starred. There’s so much more to it than what I’ve talked about here, so let us hope the committee gives it serious consideration and conversation in their deliberations.
Have you read Wild Beauty? Share your thoughts!