This month’s challenge was to fish out of the TBR pile a book recommended by another reader. I have been reading fairytale retellings lately and enjoying them, but a recent conversation with people who loved this book reminded me that I had started it a couple of years ago, but never finished it. I was enjoying the book, but I put it down and didn’t get right back to it. When I tried again, a few months later, I only got half as far, and I found the book too problematic and the characters unlikeable.
Beauty and the Beast stories are tricky for me. First, there’s the whole emphasis on physical appearance and its connection to inner beauty. In most versions of the story, Beauty is lovely inside and out. The Beast is often cursed to be ugly to match some ugly behavior, or has in some other way brought on his own disfigurement; if not, then whatever makes him physically bestial, and the way he’s been treated because of it, has made him bitter, angry, or hard to know and love. There are many ways that can be handled that are distasteful to me, particularly if the definition of “bestial” includes disability.
Then there are control issues. The original Beauty is the Beast’s prisoner; he demands her from her father in return for the father’s own life (nice parenting there). While the Beast needs her to truly love him to break the curse, he has to keep her captive in order to have a chance of that happening. I’ve heard this referred to as Stockholm syndrome, and it can often come across that way. Does Beauty really have free will when it comes to falling in love with her Beast? Who is responsible for the forced proximity that allows her to get to know him well enough to see beneath the surface? These questions can make or break this story model for me.
In this case, I chose to stop reading because of both sets of issues. Louise, the heroine, is indeed beautiful, and she knows it. She likes to flirt, and to experiment with her power over men. She’s somewhat spoiled and very high-spirited, which is why her U.S. parents have contracted for her to marry a European noble who won’t know about her antics. She is fully prepared to go through with marriage to a man she’s never met, until she hears that he is “ugly” and “lame.” Being so beautiful, she deserves to be with an attractive man, and it never occurred to her that her parents could like someone enough to accept him as her husband without that quality.
Charles, our “hero,” overhears Louise flirting and the conversation when she is told that he himself is “hideous.” His vanity is pricked, because he believes that he makes up in fashion and style for the scar that makes him blind in one eye and the slight limp he sometimes has. From his hiding place eavesdropping, he also sees Louise for the first time and is smitten by her beauty and her youth. He concocts a plan to attract her wandering attention, thereby preventing her from having a shipboard affair with anyone else, and he decides to conduct the whole proceeding in the dark and in disguise, so that she will find herself attracted to him before seeing what he looks like. He imagines an “aha!” moment where, having made her fall for him, he reveals himself and she must admit that her concern about his appearance was shallow. (Never mind how shallow he is being about her looks.)
This first part of the book is set on a ship crossing the Atlantic, bringing Louise and her family to France for her wedding. Charles is supposed to be waiting for her there, but instead he is on the same ship, incognito. So he lays a trap for her, taking out the light bulbs in the area of the ship set aside for passengers to visit their pets who are in the ship’s kennel for the trip, and striking up a conversation when she comes to visit her dog. He teases her, flirts with her, and tells her that he wants her, but that he won’t kiss her until she’s pleading for it. He challenges her to get to know him without looking at him, using senses other than sight. She clearly is attracted to him, as well as finding him infuriating in a good traditional romance novel way.
In the midst of all of this is Charles’s mistress, Pia, who with her husband is also making the ocean crossing. Pia has for several years been the only woman in his life, and he loves her; he is only marrying Louise because Pia is also married and refuses to consider changing that, and Louise’s father has offered him a fortune in ambergris for his perfume business as part of her dowry. Charles has every intention of continuing the affair, and it’s actually Pia who breaks it off, insisting on a double standard (“I am allowed to be married, but you are not”) to which Charles cannot agree. At this point I didn’t like either Charles or Louise very much, finding them self-centered, vain and shallow – perfect for each other, but not people I necessarily want to read about in a romance.
When I went back to the book this week, forcing myself to just enjoy Ivory’s beautiful prose, terrific characterization, and witty dialogue, I still didn’t like the characters, but that began to change. I actually liked Louise first, once the book got inside her head a bit and inverted the trope of outer beauty signaling inner beauty. I began to understand how being beautiful had defined her existence (narrowly) and given her little scope to be appreciated for any other qualities, thus causing her to wonder if she really had any other value. Her self-doubt and search for self-knowledge was just right for an 18-year-old, one of those times when I didn’t object to such a young heroine in historical romance. She’s intelligent and complex as a character.
I took longer to warm up to Charles. He went from being calculated, callous and controlling to being ridiculous about how much he wanted Louise sexually. I was glad that he quickly began to appreciate her mind as well as her beauty, and also that her youthful energy was something he welcomed and indulged. But while her impulsiveness was excused by youth, I had trouble accepting his – he made some poor decisions that were purely motivated by his lust for her.
By the time they leave the ship, Charles has created an impossible situation. Louise is in love with her “pasha” (Charles passed himself off as a Middle Easterner in the dark), and by contrast her scarred and limping husband is no prize. She goes through with the wedding but balks at actual marital intimacy with a man to whom she’s not attracted. She tells Charles that she was in love with a man who is now dead, at least to her; he realizes that he has hurt her with his deception, and that revealing the truth might just make her angry and more hurt. Moreover, he has intensified her reaction to his slight physical defects by helping her to create a perfectly handsome and sensual lover in the dark.
I admit to being really fed up with Charles by this point. He was unable to handle what he himself put in motion, and there was a lot of unattractive self-pity while he tried. But when he started making some decisions based on real concern for Louise, rather than just additional plotting to make her love him/sleep with him, I was able to appreciate him more. It actually took Louise longer to come around to valuing Charles and making some unselfish choices (often my barometer for real love in a book), but she managed to do it before finding out the truth and to weather the discovery, which I had begun to think was more than he deserved.
What I liked best about the book was its exploration of identity. Both Louise and Charles experience a sense of divided identity, of being two different people – the ones in the dark and the ones in the light, as it were. For a relationship to work between them, each had to figure out how to integrate their two identities and then find a way to relate this new version of themself with that of their partner. Stripping away some aspects of physical appearance, breaking social codes, and being alone with just the other person gave them insights into themselves and each other that they would otherwise not have had. That idea, that self-awareness and honesty make a relationship work, rather than just beauty and wealth, made the book work for me.
(After I wrote the review that appears above, I realized that I had reviewed the first half as my TBR Challenge book back in May of 2013. When I went back and read that review, I was really surprised that I liked the book that much the first time, since the second time was a deliberate DNF and the third time took some effort. I am not sure what changed in my reading perspective, but it’s definitely a reminder that I have to read a book at the right time. My original review of the first half is here.)