Wow. It’s been a few weeks since I finished reading this book, and I think I’m still grappling with exactly how I feel about it. It’s the kind of book that I feel will reveal more layers if I re-read it… and even more layers if I re-read it again.
The Majesties begins with a pretty devastating scene: the main character Gwendolyn is lying in a coma, the only one who survived her sister Estella’s poisoning of their entire family (300 people!) at a family celebration. As Gwendolyn tries to figure out why her sister would do such a thing, we learn about the lives of both sisters, how they were super close as children, but then a bad decision takes their lives on separate paths, such that Gwendolyn enjoyed tremendous success while Estella was trapped in a dead-end career and toxic marriage.
There’s a lot going on in this novel, and while the poisoning may have been the most dramatic event, it feels almost secondary to the story of how the sisters’ lives unfolded. Tsao touches slightly on the social strata in Indonesian society, and how the Chinese part of the sisters’ heritage isolated them somewhat within a very stratified segment of the super-rich. It’s the kind of subtle cultural nuance I love to see in fiction, and that I think helps bring this story to life.
The ‘majesties’ in the title refers to the jewellery that makes Gwendolyn an international fashion star and independently wealthy from her family. In a reveal that honestly turned my stomach, we learn that majesties are live insects that are put into some kind of soporific state by genetically modified fungus. The idea that people would be okay with butterflies essentially being zombiefied into accessories is disgusting. Unfortunately, I can also imagine people being okay with it, especially since the way Tsao describes these majesties shows how utterly beautiful they are. To assuage any lingering bits of conscience, Gwendolyn assures customers that her majesties have longer and more comfortable lives than insects in the wild. It’s horrific, yet all too believable, and these majesties are an incredibly potent metaphor for the gilded prison Gwendolyn and Estella grew up in.
The tragedy of Estella’s life, and perhaps a clue into her motives behind killing her entire family, is that while Gwendolyn managed to escape their family, Estella remained trapped. She fell in love with the wrong man, Leonard, who turned out to be abusive. And she took a job in the family business, one that provided her with a steady source of income but did nothing to stimulate her intellectually. The scenes where she listens to Gwendolyn’s stories about the majesties are almost heartbreaking — you can feel Estella’s desire to escape like her sister did, just as much as you sense her inability to actually do so.
Given the magnitude of Estella’s act at the beginning of the novel, I wish Tsao had shown us more about how horrible their family actually was. About halfway through the novel, I had a very strong sense of why Leonard was horrible (and a very strong suspicion that Estella may have been responsible for his fate), but still didn’t quite understand why she would have been driven to kill her entire family. Tsao holds out Estella’s motives till near the end of the book, and while she did succeed in making the reveal dramatic, I wish we’d seen more details about her family’s behaviour throughout.
The Majesties turned out to be much sadder than I expected. I think I came into it expecting a psychological thriller, or some kind of social satire. But instead, it’s a story about a young woman’s life gone horribly wrong, and her sister’s ultimate inability to save her. It’s a realistic, heartfelt story amidst all the glitz and glamour of its characters’ worlds, and Tsao does a great job in tucking Gwedolyn and Estella right into your heart.
Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.