Sun, Sep 25, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Author of 'Rebel Angels' has her own dramatic tale of tell

When you're smashed your face, lost an eye, had 13 surgeries and emerged radiantly whole, you know what it means to embody a great and terrible beauty

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SEATTLE

Rebel Angels
By Libba Bray
560 pages
Delacorte

But if best-selling teen author Libba Bray ever writes a memoir of her darkly quirky life, she'll have to come up with another title. A Great and Terrible Beauty is already taken.

That, of course, is the title of her 2003 breakout bestseller, a supernatural mystery set in a girls boarding school in Victorian England.

That Bray, daughter of a Texas minister and an English teacher, would be drawn to the gothic is understandable given the shattering twists of her own, personal soap opera.

It's a saga shaped by family secrets, a wrenching parental breakup, a loved one's tragic death from AIDS and her own near-fatal accident on the brink of adulthood. It seems the only thing missing from Bray's personal melodrama is Snidely Whiplash tying her to the railroad tracks.

As a friend told her recently, "You have a life like seven Oprah shows."

But Bray, 41, is too bright and sassy to wallow in bathos. A New York transplant with a Texas twang, Bray has a quick and irreverent sense of humor -- "as one-eyed girls often do," she notes dryly.

Now, she has reason to smile. Rebel Angels, the anticipated sequel to A Great and Terrible Beauty, debuted at No. 4 this month on The New York Times bestseller list.

"In many ways, this volume surpasses the first," School Library Journal says. "The writing never falters."

Book 2 of a planned trilogy, it propels 16-year-old Gemma Doyle and her flawed friends from London's Spence Academy deeper into intrigue and otherworldly struggles as they confront the powers that led, in Book 1, to the murder of Gemma's mother in India.

The trilogy is at once a girls' friendship story, a journey of self-discovery and a portrait of 19th-century class and gender strictures. Though aimed at older teens, it generates mail from 12-year-old girls and twenty-somethings alike. Bray admits to a lifelong fascination with Victorian England, starting at age 10, when she told her mother she wanted to learn to speak "British" and be queen of England.

"I think there's such an overlap between (Victorian) culture and Southern culture," Bray said. "There is repression and darkness and [a hint of] `What's going on behind that respectable veneer?"'

Bray grew attuned to social facades at 14, when her parents' divorce forced her to look anew at her world. A parental breakup is difficult for any child, but especially for a minister's child.

And especially when the cause of the breakup was her father's coming out as gay to his family while otherwise remaining closeted about his sexual identity.

"It started a whole new chapter in my life to discover my father was gay," Bray said. "I think it's very hard to discover that everything you thought you knew up to the age of 14 is out the window."

What troubled her most, she said, was her family's effort to hide the truth, lest her father lose his job.

"[It was] the fact that he had to keep secrets -- and I became a secret-keeper," Bray said. "You can't really marginalize or ghettoize a whole sector of the population, because it forces people into a life of shame. That, of course, trickles down."

Bray gave a brief laugh and added, "I feel like I'm speaking with my therapist."

Does she indeed have a therapist?

"Amen, sister," Bray said with conviction. "All apologies to Tom Cruise."

Bray's early life churned a bounty of issues, starting with the most basic questions of identity. She was 18 when a horrendous car accident left her with two broken legs, a missing rib, a destroyed left eye and fractures in most of her facial bones.

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