This month’s challenge theme is to read a book by an author who has more than one book in the TBR. There were several possibilities for me, but I went to the print pile for a Judith Ivory. I’ve enjoyed one Ivory book before, and DNFed another, and I was interested to read her take on the popular Beauty and the Beast trope. I started the book late, amidst the chaos of the week before finals, and I thought I might finish it by skimming some of the nearly 400 pages. But that didn’t work out; I got caught up in the book and found myself reading more slowly than usual, to catch nuances of description and turns of phrase in dialog. So this is actually a review of the first part of the book.
Charles, the beast, is blind in one eye and has a bad leg. But he is otherwise strong and handsome, not to mention wealthy, and he is for the most part sought after rather than shunned by women. He has entered into an engagement (sight unseen) with an American heiress at the urging of the girl’s parents; they have sealed the bargain with control of ships and a supply of ambergris, which he needs to further his dream of inventing a classic perfume. His bride-to-be and her family are traveling by luxury ocean liner to France for the wedding; he takes passage anonymously on the same ship.
Louise, the beauty, is an equally fascinating character. She wants to rebel against her parents, but has only done so in minor ways. She fears the marriage they have arranged, hearing that her husband-to-be has physical impairments, but she doesn’t quite have the nerve to refuse the match. She is only 18 and rather lost in life; she doesn’t know who she is or what she wants, and everyone else seems to think that her beauty and inheritance are her most important qualities.
Both characters are compelling and yet not conventionally likable. Both are vain about their looks and their intelligence, seeing themselves as superior to most other people. They are selfish, privileged and sometimes shallow; they probably deserve each other, in the positive and the negative senses. Naturally, they are attracted to each other, and they enter into a sexual relationship during their time on the ship — an unequal relationship, because Charles knows Louise’s identity, but keeps his own a secret, going so far as to insist that their encounters be limited to darkness.
I’ve said recently that I’m a little weary of sex scenes in romance, particularly historical romance. Some feel gratuitous, some aren’t written very well, some exhibit both characteristics. For me, the overall result has been that I tend to skim those scenes or lose interest in the book altogether, and I have reached a level of fatigue that encompasses even well-written sex scenes that are integral to plot and character development. And then I read this book, and I remembered that in the hands of a skilled author, fatigue is dispelled. The darkness of the scenes puts emphasis on other senses, particularly smell, as Charles is a perfumer with a sophisticated nose. Charles is 37, much older and more experienced than Louise, and this is used to good effect in what is eventually a mutual seduction. They become intimate physically and emotionally, even though Charles keeps so many facts about his life secret or obscured.
While the combination of age difference, gender power difference and the huge advantage Charles keeps of secrecy, I would expect to be uncomfortable with the power dynamics of this story so far. But I’m not, in part because it’s clear that Charles isn’t in control of the situation; Louise continually makes choices that surprise him and establish her agency. Also, it’s obvious that at some point Louise will learn the truth, and at that point Charles is going to have a lot of groveling to do. A LOT. Halfway through the book, it’s clear that these two are a good match, and that they bring out the best in each other. I’m looking forward to the rest.