Antonina Beaulieu, called Nina, travels to the city of Loisail to stay with her wealthy cousin Gaetan Beaulieu and his wife Valérie, who leads her through her first Grand Season with an iron hand. Nina is a country girl from a wealthy family but lacks the sophistication Valérie insists upon, and her erratic telekinetic powers only make Valérie angrier. When Nina meets the celebrated entertainer, Hector Auvray, she finds a kindred spirit who shares the same odd talent. Hector courts her as a ploy to get close to Valérie, whom he still loves despite her breaking their engagement years ago.
This world of parties, balls, calling cards and formal manners reminded me of Edith Wharton’s novels, even more so when the cracks in polite society begin to show. Ms. Moreno-Garcia surrounds her characters with lavish surroundings, furnishings, clothes, and jewelry. She shows readers the minefield of Belle Epoque manners, where a walk in the park at the wrong hour can set tongues wagging for days. Valérie is a queen of society; a tastemaker envied by her peers, but her displays of wealth mask her inner world, just as Nina’s unsophisticated manners hide a great intelligence and a kind heart. This technique beautifully underscores the characters, the milieu, and the plot.
Then, there is the question of telekinesis. This one drop of the fantastic kept me guessing how it fit into the story as a whole, and I wondered if it was simply a bit of clever characterization. It’s introduced as something out-of-the-ordinary and certainly unusual, but not worthy of fear or derision. Unless, of course, you’re a woman. Hector has made a fine living as a showman, and while he doesn’t have a noble name, his wealth and fame buy him a place in Loisail society. Nina was born into wealth, but her talent is likened to childish temper tantrums and has earned her a bad reputation and reprimands. Hector agrees to tutor her to teach her to control it, and the flush of Nina’s first crush begins.
The romantic entanglements of the main characters revolve around social class and wealth—or the lack of it. There are moments where Nina realizes her experience is nothing like the starry-eyed novels she’s read, and I found those delightful. Fairy-tale romance is fiction, and in Loisail, brides are traded like commodities to maintain their family’s position or to save the pride of fine families driven into poverty. That tension between arranged marriages and true love is one of the driving forces that bring the novel to a satisfying conclusion.
My main complaint about the book is purely subjective. For the first half of the novel, the setting and the drama of manners was interesting, but moved slowly and was easy to put down after a chapter or two. However, the second part is more exciting, with new conflicts, conspiracies, and danger on the horizon. That was the spark I needed to forge a connection to the characters and take sides in the conflict. The slow escalation of tension and consequences was well worth the wait.