Becoming Belle by Nuala O'Connor

Becoming Belle

Nuala O'Connor

Becoming Belle is the story Belle’s rapid ascent into the Irish aristocracy, and the people that tried to tear her down. Set against an absorbing portrait of Victorian London, hers is a timeless rags-to-riches story.

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A witty and inherently feminist novel about passion and marriage, based on a true story of an unstoppable woman ahead of her time in Victorian London.

In 1887, Isabel Bilton is the eldest of three daughters of a middle-class military family, growing up in a small garrison town. By 1891 she is the Countess of Clancarty, dubbed "the peasant countess" by the press, and a member of the Irish aristocracy. Becoming Belle is the story of the four years in between, of Belle's rapid ascent and the people that tried to tear her down.

With only her talent, charm, and determination, Isabel moves to London alone at age nineteen, changes her name to Belle, and takes the city by storm, facing unthinkable hardships as she rises to fame. A true bohemian and the star of a dancing double act she performs with her sister, she reigns over The Empire Theatre and The Corinthian Club, where only select society entertains. It is there she falls passionately in love with William, Viscount Dunlo, a young aristocrat. For Belle, her marriage to William is a dream come true, but his ruthless father makes clear he'll stop at nothing to keep her in her place.

Reimagined by a novelist at the height of her powers, Belle is an unforgettable woman. Set against an absorbing portrait of Victorian London, hers is a timeless rags-to-riches story a la Becky Sharpe.

Advance Galley Reviews

The premise of the story intrigued me greatly, and I read the first quarter to third of the book with interest. However, at a certain point, the text lost me - I found the character of Belle to be fairly flat, and I wished for more depth so I could care about her more.

As I’ve seen in other reviews, the flowery prose seems a little out of place at first, but the story grows into it. I think the writing itself has a role as big as any of the characters in the novel, which adds an interesting characteristic to the bildungsroman. Initially, I had some difficulty connecting to Isabel, if only because she seemed incomplete without Flo - they are presented as two halves of one whole. The dreamy and artistic Isabel and the sensible and reasonable Flo. But as the novel progressed, I found myself more invested in her story. I think there’s something very sympathetic about a rags-to-riches story that’s based on more than luck and beauty - which isn’t to say those aspects didn’t come into play, but as Isabel grew into Belle, I found myself admiring her more and more as she adapted and grew. After having done some research on Belle Bilton outside of the novel, I like her even more. I found an old New York Times article (30 May 1891 - don’t search for it unless you’re ready for some spoilers) that says “Belle Bilton [became] a sort of heroine and became very popular in certain circles… Although almost utterly devoid of talent, she received a salary of $500 per week, played to pack houses nightly, people of the best classes crowding to see her, and drove every evening to the theatre in a handsome brougham, with a coachman and footman on the box.” I think if these aspects would have come out more in the novel - that she may not have been as talented as she was portrayed to be and her real skill was marketing herself (beauty and all) and working the circles she grew popular in - it may have been easier to connect with her in the novel and I certainly would have enjoyed it more than the romantic, whimsical portrayal of a cloyingly beautiful woman who took advantage of an effortless talent with the help of some circumstantial luck. While I wouldn’t say I loved the novel, I didn’t dislike it. The pacing was slow at times but overall it was an interesting take on a cultural figure who, fiction or no, made the best of her circumstances and came out on top. In the way of many novels set in this period, the last three chapters could have each ended the novel.

Look, you guys. I don't know. The feminist in me says that this book does something really interesting that we need to see more often in fiction. The main character, Issy "Belle" Bilton, is deeply unlikeable. Like, sincerely so. It reminds me of the main character from The Girl on The Train, actually, in that there's nothing really redeeming about her. But people are *like* that. Women are not all selfless, giving, genteel folk that can't wait to be good mothers. There are as many "Belle"s out there as there are the former, and it's refreshing to have someone write about a woman like that. But from an execution standpoint, this book lacks. The writing doesn't do the characterization of Belle justice, and the other characters read as two dimensional. Likewise, there's a lot of simple resolution--rarely does Belle come face-to-face with consequences. And that's the real problem: the book lacks stakes. So I'm not sure where I fall on this one. I'm not sure I'd recommend it outright, but I do appreciate what O'Connor was attempting to do.

I love a good Cinderella story as much as the next girl, but I have mixed feelings on this book. I just got the feeling that “Belle” Bilton wasn’t an actual “Cinderella”, but more of a gold-digger. I actually felt more inclined to cheer her sister Flo on. It even took me longer than usual to finish this book because the character of Belle nauseated me.

I usually love Historical Period books.... but this one.... not at all. I couldn't feel any connection to the character, the story dragged on and on with, seemingly, no purpose or relevance.... Definitely not a book I'll re-read. Sorry.

I DNFed this book. The main character was awful, completely self centered, a gold digger, and a simply terrible choice for a story. It was boring and the writing wasn’t my cup of tea. I really had high hopes for this one but I was sorely disappointed.

Unfortunately I wasn't a big fan of this book. I just could not like Belle. For a young woman who left fome to make a name for herself she was just painfully naive and unworldly at times. Her behavior and treatment of those people in her life who were supportive of her or helped make her life easier in some way just annoyed me and she just never seemed to grow up or become a likeable character.

As much as I wanted to, I could not make myself like the main character, Belle. She was decidedly naïve, selfish, impulsive, shallow, and lacked any depth of character. The writing was fairly decent, but did not develop characters enough for me to really connect with them, nor like them or feel bad for them. Sadly, the description of this book did not live up to the experience of reading it. I hate to dislike a book and write negative things about it, but I wouldn't suggest this book to my friends -- unless they tend to like selfish, shallow characters with low moral values, who aren't developed enough to really connect with. Definitely not one of the strong female characters I tend to love. It's a pity because I can devour a good historical novel in a matter of hours. Maybe the author's next book will be better.

I didn't particularly like this book. The writing was at times over the top and cringe-inducing. The chapters are relatively short making for a fast-paced novel, which was appreciated. The characters were unlikeable though. I found Belle, the main character, to be a naïve and selfish woman and not the feminist that the description would have you believe she was. I am also not a fan of the liberties the author took with a certain character to make Belle more sympathetic to the reader. I love reading historical fiction. Especially about people and events whom I would otherwise not have heard of. But this book was a complete miss for me. I am extremely disappointed. 2/5 stars

This book was a good read and the ending left me wanting to know more about these characters. At the end of the book when you learn that this was based on real people and you get a little bit of info on how the real people ended up. That was interesting and sad. I wasn't in love with any of these characters as they are most definitely flawed. And when you sit back and take in the story as a whole you can see why she made some of her more questionable choices even if you may not agree with them.

I couldn’t agree with Glenda Luckie more. This was just a “fluff” story. Let’s through in a self centred , self serving main character. Who just bounces from man to man. No depth of character or plot. Did not get past 100 pages before being totally bored with this book

I’m probably going to be unpopular here, but I was not impressed with anything about this book. It was a story about an airheaded, ditzy female who was also beautiful (wow, there’s something new). I never came to care about any of the characters. I didn’t like the writing style or the story. The most emotion I felt while reading this book was disbelief that the main player was such a shallow twit. It also didn’t help that the story was written with little substance and too much emphasis on fitting in as many odd, British words as they could. By the way, it is obvious the author owns a thesaurus. Next time put it away. Sometimes simpler words make the story better. I honestly don’t like writing negative reviews and really do feel bad this review is so harsh when something was made available to me for free, however I can only give my honest opinion. Unfortunately, I was not the least bit entertained or impressed.

It is a fact that truth can be stranger than fiction. Belle did go out and forge her own life, mostly the way she wanted it but I would not call this feminist fiction. It is somewhat Dickensian except with sex scenes added. It was interesting enough that I read further online about Belle, William and their descendents. One of William’s sons from a second marriage, after Belle died, turned out to be a “ufologist” in the House of Lords.

Isabel Bilton knew from a young age that she wanted to leave her parents and her two sisters in their small town and run away to London where she would dance and become famous. It was the late 1800's and most sensible girls had only marriage and family on their mind but not Isabel. One of her sisters, Flo, follows her to London and together they become the talk of the town - with Isabel the Darling of the Stage. Issy is very naive and falls for one mishap after another. Somehow she always manages to come out on top and while she did not fall to conventionality, she was still dependent on men for fame, love and bailing her out of trouble. She seemed to have little regard for anyone other than herself - including her own child and never took responsibility for her actions. When she did fall in love she let nothing stand in her way, including his family. Interesting story of a woman who could have had it all and didn't mind stepping on a few bodies along the way. My thanks to the publisher for the advance copy.


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