1997, Turn of the Century (1890s Atlantic Ocean and France)
Avon, $6.99, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 0380786443
Beast by Judith Ivory is one of my two all-time favorite romance books and also simply one of the best books I have ever read. When I read books or watch movies, afterwards I have a certain feel for them, a textural sensation. Beast has left me with one of the richest, most voluptuous "feels" ever.
The story is set around the turn of the 20th century. The first half of the book takes place on the ocean liner Concordia; the second half takes place in Provence, France.
The plot is fairly simple. It combines an unknown lover theme with a beauty-and-beast theme. Louise Vandermeer is an heiress and beautiful beyond mere mortal imagination. Her fiancÚ, Charles Harcourt, is sophisticated, successful, and well-admired, the perfect man if you will, except for a couple of unfortunate defects. He is blind in one eye from a childhood ailment. That eye is further distorted by a scar. He also has a bad knee and limps a bit when the weather is unfavorable. In other words, he is not pretty.
Louise agreed to marry Charles sight unseen because she wanted the freedom of a married woman. While she is on the Concordia traveling to Nice for the wedding, Charles, unbeknownst to her, happens to be on the same ship. He seduces her in complete darkness. But the prank backfires. Charles falls hard for Louise, but she is in love only with her shipboard lover, unaware that it was Charles Harcourt all along.
One of the reasons I love this book is because of its characters. One doesn't see a heroine like Louise everyday. In fact, I've never read another one like her. She is not what one would label immediately sympathetic. She is eighteen, raised in the lap of luxury, more beautiful than Helen of Troy, completely aware of her power over the opposite sex, bored with her life, and annoyed with her parents and relatives.
Sounds like somebody you and I could detest? But Judith Ivory made her so much more than a spoiled darling. Louise is excruciatingly intelligent. I can hardly think of any heroine from any other book who is sharper or more observant. As a result, Louise is painfully aware of how circumscribed her life is, both by her wealth and her beauty. People are struck dumb by her looks. They have no idea who the real Louise Vandermeer truly is or wants to be. She adroitly fends off open-mouthed admiration from men and jealousy from women while longing to be someone kinder, wiser, someone more open, someone who was in fact, the real Louise Vandermeer.
You don't have to be beautiful. You only need to have been eighteen, confused, aimless, misunderstood and feeling like an outsider to sympathize with Louise.
Charles Harcourt, on the opposite end of the spectrum, is also a victim of his appearance. With him, Ivory has succeeded in creating a man who pays a great deal of attention to and agonizes over his looks, yet who is never diminished by this seemingly less-than-manly concern. Charles is mature, understanding, generous, and open-minded. He is the person with whom Louise could be completely open. And while he is awed and flabbergasted and flustered by her beauty, we are never in doubt of what he really fell in love with: her strength, her perspicacity, her desire to improve herself, and the force of her will.
Louise, to her great credit, realizes and admires the less-than-sightly Charles for all his wonderful qualities. In time, she falls in love with this Charles and we know they've both found the one person they needed.
As if such complex, human, flesh-and-blood characters aren't enough, Ms. Ivory wows me with her exquisite command of language. There is something inimitable about her writing. (I know - I've tried and failed.) Not only do lovely similes, metaphors, adjectives, and adverbs cascade freely from her pen without ever degenerating into verbosity, she writes with an energy, an enthusiasm - almost a glee - that I have not seen anywhere else except perhaps in Isabel Allende's book Aphrodite.
Her writing is tactile, visual, olfactory, gustatory. When she describes pearls, you feel their cool smooth roundness. When she describes food, you are hungry. And when she describes scenery, by God, you are there. Provence comes alive in her pen just as it does in Peter Mayle's books.
And when she writes a love scene, you need a cold shower.
Sometimes after reading a romance, one sighs and is satisfied. I was not only satisfied, I was astounded by Beast. Judith Ivory is one of the best writers writing today, period. And Beast, in my opinion is Judith Ivory at her best.
-- Sherry Thomas
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