Beast by Judith Ivory

1130878An exquisite American heiress, Louise Vandermeer is beautiful, brilliant…and bored—which is why she has agreed to a daring adventure: to travel across the ocean to marry an aristocrat abroad. Rumor has it her intended is a hideous cad—a grim prospect that propels her into a passionate, reckless affair with a compelling stranger she never sees in the light of day.

Though scarred by a childhood illness, Charles d’Harcourt has successfully wooed Europe’s most sophisticated beauties. For a lark, he contrived to travel incognito on his own fiancée’s ship—and seduce the young chit in utter darkness. But the rake’s prank backfired. It was he who was smitten—while the hot-tempered Lulu, now his wife, loves only her shipboard lover, unaware it was d’Harcourt all the time! And Charles will never have her heart—unless he can open her eyes to the prince who hides within.

Review:

I’ve been wanting to try some older romances so I went through NPR’s 100 Swoon-worthy Romances list and dug in.  This book caught my eye immediately – the “beauty and the beast” trope is a favorite – so I dug in.

The good:

  • I love flipped expectations and here the beast is temporarily turned upside down.  Louise first meets Charles in shadowy corridors and staterooms, where he plays up a fake exotic angle (more on this later) and seduces her by word and deed.  Only when they meet for “real” she’s put off by his not-so-great looks and the usual fairy tale storyline kicks in.
  • While set at the dawn of the Edwardian era Louise lives as big a life as she can.  Before the novel starts she slipped away from her parents to go gambling in Montreal, and later she pursues her interests even though they’re not the most “ladylike”. Rock on.
  • Louise learned French to a high level in the classroom and her ability, mistakes, and frustrations are superbly portrayed.  She misses words in conversation, she doesn’t know any slang, and her formal speech, while perfect for parties and introductions to society, drives Charles nuts.

    “Tu, tu. Use it”, he said, encouraging the intimate verb construction.  The language used between lovers and friends.

    “I don’t know those conjugations.  My instructor thought they were too intimate.”

    As someone who uses her second, learned language in everyday life it feels all too real and true.

  • I didn’t know a thing about ambergris going in and now my head is full of the stinky stuff.  It’s fascinating.

The questionable:

  • Like it says in the synopsis, Louise gets intimate with her husband thinking he’s someone else entirely.  If this affair-but-not-an-affair isn’t your thing stay away.
  • One of the ways Charles hides his identity is by pretending he’s a Muslim man from Northern Africa, as there are some people by that description on the ship.  It makes him Other and exotic and Louise gobbles it up, often daydreaming about “her pasha”.  On one hand it’s troublesome, and I would rather it wasn’t in the book at all, but Ivory tries to be fair.

    “You must hate the Arabs for that.”

    He shrugged. “Oh, Arabs, Moors, Frenchmen” – he laughed – “Americans. We’re all about the same, good ones, bad ones.”

    Exotic dark-skinned heroes are no stranger to romance (just search for sheikh on Goodreads) and this muddied my already complicated thoughts on the issue.

The not-so-good:

  • The story is split neatly in two with a hot, lusty shipboard part and a wary, hmmm-can-I-ever-like-this-guy part.  Things move quickly while crossing the Atlantic but on land our couple maintains a cautious holding pattern.  There’s also over description in the second half (including what kind of countertops are in a room they spend a few minutes in) and we spend a lot of time wallowing in their repetitive thoughts.
  • In one scene Charles acts completely out of character, flipping the table he and Louise are eating at.  It may have been meant that way – he was so frustrated he did something out of character – but it made me worry for her physical well being. Not cool.
  • Building Louise and Charles’ emotional connection the second time around takes a lot of time and is frustrating, making the ending less satisfying.

All in all Beast has aged well considering it was written twenty years ago.  While the questionable parts still bug me the flipped trope makes for an interesting read.

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