DAMSEL, one of my favorite fantasy books. So this is partially a case of expectations shaping reality because this is NOT a fantasy book. People are shelving this as fantasy but there's no magic: the only real fantasy element is that it takes place in a made-up kingdom in Europe called Lucomo, rather similar to Genovia, from the Princess Diaries.
In fact, in many ways, THE FORCE OF SUCH BEAUTY is kind of like a warped funhouse mirror version of Princess Diaries, but make it kind of horrific. What if Mia was woefully unequipped to step up as a royal princess? What if people took advantage of her naivete? What if the royal family of Thermopolises were actually brutally cutthroat and determined to do whatever it took to keep their kingdom afloat? That's the situation that Caroline finds herself in.
Caroline is a South African marathon runner who has set world records and won the Olympic gold. All that comes to a screeching halt when she falls face-down at a race, damaging her face and breaking one of her legs. It turns out that running has given her a rare form of osteoporosis, causing the cartilage in her bones to deteriorate. While getting reconstructive surgery on her damaged face and undergoing surgeries for her legs, she meets a man in the hospital named Finn. They get along really well and become friends, and he gives her a book about Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera and she ends up really relating to Kahlo and her determination in the face of adversity and her struggles with chronic pain.
Caroline then goes to Portugal where she enjoys the young life she never had a chance to enjoy before while hanging out with a rich set of expatriates. She meets Finn again and this time they start their romance in earnest and she discovers that he's a prince. The whirlwind courtship then ends in a proposal but pretty soon it becomes apparent that their romance isn't the fairytale she expected: none of the staff seem to like her very much, her new mother in law only wants heirs apparent for the throne, and her husband treats her like a child, even going so far as to lock her in her room when she misbehaves.
There was so much I loved about this book. The world-building and research that must have gone into this was really impressive, and I loved that the author touched on things like racism and apartheid. (You really can't omit things like that when writing about what the author did, but it makes some people so uncomfy that some authors will just gloss over these subjects to save themselves grief.) The writing style was also gorgeous and I thought Caroline was a great narrator. I'm only giving this a three not because it was a bad book but because I personally felt like I wasn't sure what this book was meant to be. The pacing was a little off and I felt like it was longer and more repetitive than it needed to be in the middle, and I'm going to be honest: I wasn't a fan of the ending.
While reading this, I kept thinking that this had to have been inspired by Meghan Markle and especially Princess Diana, and in the afterword the author talks about them and the subversion of the typical fairy princess story. In that regard, I think she succeeded. I've been watching The Crown and the Princess Diana arc was genuinely heart-wrenchingly tragic. So if the author's aim was to sort of capture how difficult it is to ascend to royalty in the absence of preparation through a feminist lens, she wildly succeeded. I guess the romantic in me was just hoping for a happier outcome, you know?
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars