BECOMING BELLE by Nuala O’Connor

This is the story of Isabel Bilton, an actress and dancer of the London Theatre scene at the end of the 19th century who married the heir of an Irish estate and soon proceeded to “scandalize” society just by virtue of being who she was. I went into this book expecting much more than what I got. I expected a look into the bohemian scene of the late 19th century London, more insight into actual theatre life, and a little bit of a comedy of manners, perhaps.

This book is none of those things. Instead, it’s a single-minded account of Belle Bilton’s love life. Which is fine, of course. However, the late 19th century is one of my favorite periods of history, and I wanted to sort of deep dive into it with this book, especially into the bohemian lifestyle at that time. But I got none of that. I just wanted so much more from this narrative and found everything to be somewhat lacking.

At first I thought the writing was dry and detached. It’s a third-person narrative and I’m used to reading first person and the closeness of it, but after the first few chapters I was quickly absorbed by the story. I would say the ending of the book is strong and the beginning is decent, it was during the middle that I got a little bored and struggled to pick up the book and continue reading.

There’s also flowery prose and I’m not sure in this case whether I love it or hate it. It worked for this particular narrative voice but I prefer more direct writing without an overuse of big words or extended descriptions. Why use ten words when you can say the same thing in five words, or even less? The dialogue is sometimes too saccharine as well. I understand that the dialogue tries to reflect how people actually spoke during that time period but it comes off as infantile at times and put me off.

Concerning the protagonist, it was hard for me to root for Belle Bilton because I just found her so awful as a person. She was a terrible mother and somewhat selfish, and also kind of naive in this really annoying way, and this made her highly unlikable to me. I kept expecting she would do right for her son in the end, but she didn’t. The protagonist’s romantic interest is also disappointing. He is very unlikable as well just because he has no backbone whatsoever.

Also, the “scandal” was not what I imagined it to be, and though there are very interesting scenes towards the end involving a law procedure, which saves the ending for me, it’s not enough to redeem the whole book. The whole story in general feels very enclosed, very limiting in a way. As a reader, we only have contact with a few characters and settings. I wanted to feel more whisked away by the time period, but this just didn’t happen. In general, a disappointing read although not altogether awful.

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