I was introduced to the novel The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton through my Dystopian and Utopian Writing class in high school. Right away, I was enamored with the world Clayton built. In Orleans, beauty is the ultimate commodity. Humans are born as gray, plain canvases and only the Belles–a different race of women born with special powers–can make them beautiful. Thus, the Belles are revered, and each year a Favorite is chosen to serve the royal family and dictate beauty trends. The Belles satirizes the fickleness of real-life beauty trends and the popularity of beauty procedures by amping such aspects up to 100.
The Belles is about the main character Camille, who wants to advance in society and gain power and influence by becoming the Favorite. Camille’s fierceness, pride, and ambition struck me, as they’re characteristics I don’t frequently see in female main characters. Of course, Camille soon learns the difficulties of navigating high society and her job. The readers bear witness to the internal conflict between what she’s been taught to want and what she feels is right. She makes poor decisions at times–as all protagonists do–but I still found myself rooting for and sympathizing with her.
Clayton utilizes a unique writing style full of imagery and dessert-related similes. The writing feels both enchanting and excessive, which is a reflection of the opulent world of Orleans. Also, I think Clayton does an excellent job of weaving in how the society works without long blocks of prologue. The Belles combines historic aristocratic aesthetics and social norms with unique technology and a little magic.
Another personal favorite feature of Clayton’s novel is the deep bond between the Belle sisters. Their love for each other is tested but endures all trials. The novel also empowers women, especially women of color. Most of the main players in the story are women, including the queen, the princesses, and the Belles. The Belles, who are all considered beautiful, come in a variety of skin colors and hair types. Although race is never mentioned, I found it refreshing to read about beautiful, dark-skinned women.
To conclude, I read the sequel to The Belles, The Everlasting Rose. I enjoyed it as an extension of the universe, but the way everything wrapped up was lackluster in my opinion. Even though The Belles leaves the plot unfinished, I enjoyed it as a standalone novel and as a window into Orleans and Camille’s world.