Hello everyone and welcome to the first in what we hope will be on-going series here on the AAR blog. Every month or so we’re going to choose a romance and have a discussion about it, we being Elisabeth Lane (of Cooking Up Romance), a long-time romance reader who now creates recipes inspired by books and then blogs about it, and Alexis Hall, a relative newcomer to the romance genre, whose other hobbies involve hats, swords and tea (though rarely together).
In this Pandora’s Box guest bloggers Alexis Hall and Elisabeth Lane discuss Beast by Judith Ivory, published in 1997. It’s a beauty and the beast type story featuring a beautiful American heiress, Louise Vandermeer, and her husband-to-be, a French prince and – of all things – perfumier, Charles d’Harcourt. The first part of the book is set aboard a cruise ship during a storm: concerned for his future wife’s fidelity, Charles decides to woo her in disguise, a “joke” that backfires when they discover they have a real connection. The second part of the book is set in France, after they’re married, as they have to deal with the fallout of this Very Stupid Idea.
AJH: So, Elisabeth: broad impressions. How’d you find it?
Elisabeth: I was blown away by this book. It’s unconventional in pretty much all the ways. And I think sometimes the danger of that is that the romance can get lost. But it’s also, I thought, incredibly romantic. You have this anonymous shipboard romance in the first half and then this marriage-in-trouble romance in the second half and the two pieces still manage to work well together to create an incredibly satisfying whole. What did you think?
AJH: I agree. I thought it was glorious, for all the reasons you mention. And it was just stuffed full of things I Really Like. I have kind of a weakness for beautiful heroines, partially because beautiful people (especially beautiful women) are usually cast as antagonists to the nice/witty protagonist with the fine eyes, but also because there seems to be this myth that being beautiful will solve all your problems and make you powerful and this isn’t something the rest of us can identify with or be interested in. But most the truly beautiful people I’ve met have actually suffered a great deal for it. It’s certainly power that comes with a cost. But I felt this was a really compassionate, subtle portrait of a complex woman, and being beautiful is something she herself to navigate and think about. It’s even got this proto-NA vibe in a way because she’s eighteen years old and has no idea who she is or how to become someone she likes or live a life she wants to live. And I was actually quite intrigued by the hero too. I thought he was a dick in new and unusual and really rather compelling ways.
Elisabeth: Wow. You thought he was a dick? I mean, I guess I can sort of see that. But, aside from Louise’s beauty, her main defining feature is that she’s been sheltered to death by her parents and is desperate for adventure. She says at one point that “there is a real seduction to having someone listen and know you, accept you just as you are” and I think that, in addition to the frankly mind-blowing sex, is what he offers her. At her desire. And he demands enthusiastic consent from her in the process.
AJH: I said he was a dick in new, unusual and compelling ways – that was a compliment! But I’d suggest there’s an extent to which consent is already compromised when you’re pretending to be someone else…. although, to be fair, I don’t think the book is recommending this as a seduction strategy. He’s very aware of what an incredible mess he’s making of everything, how problematic his own behaviour is, and the consequences of what he does on both are them are far-reaching and long-lasting.
Elisabeth: The first thing I noticed about Charles is just how closely he corresponds to the Beauty and the Beast fairytale conception. It seems every adaptation I’ve read (and I’ve read lots because it’s my FAVORITE) refers to the Beast’s problems his eyesight–in this case a lack of depth perception. In Charles’ case, it’s because of a birth defect that has blinded him in one eye. Plus there’s the sense of smell thing. He has a preternaturally keen sense of smell.
AJH: Beauty and the Beast is also my FAVOURITE but, honestly, the short-sightedness thing is an element of the story I’ve largely failed to note. For me, Charles was quite refreshing as a Beast-archetype because he wasn’t hideously scarred and living alone in a dark castle somewhere. In my admittedly more limited experience, beasty romance heroes are very explicitly perceived and presented as monstrous, whereas he is very overtly sexy and sexual, and a lot of his ‘beastliness’ is – as you’ve said – is less explicit: it’s his sense of smell, and his temper, and his pride.
Elisabeth: His psychology is definitely fascinating. He’s not a very reliable narrator of his own internal monologue. He’s so insecure. And yet also so confident. I can’t help but think it’s almost of the “fake it til you make it” variety. And he has largely succeeded. Well, until he meets Louise. Which brings his childhood insecurities back with a vengeance–all the problems he had relating to girls his own age growing up. Especially the pretty ones.
AJH: I think Charles and Louise are both fascinating, actually. I thought the character work through the whole novel was … amazingly deft, especially because Ivory doesn’t flinch from making them both deeply unpleasant in a lot of (very human and understandable ways). What really struck me about the fairytale aspects of the story was that, really, they’re both Beauty and they’re both the Beast, fantastical outsiders in what is otherwise quite an everyday world.
Elisabeth: Fantastical outsiders? I’m not sure I understand what you mean.
AJH: Well they’re both marked by a physicality that makes them striking (Louise for her beauty, Charles for his virility … I guess?) and they’re both at once empowered and limited and defined by that. They’re both kind of frightening, to themselves and to each other, both insecure, both lonely, both rather savage and rather cruel, and she’s “faking it til she makes it” just like he is. I felt rather than being a Beauty and the Beast story where one character (the heroine) is Beauty and the other character (the hero) is Beast, they embodied aspects of both – revealing those archetypes to be, not opposites, but ultimately the same.
Elisabeth: I think that tends to be true of all the best Beauty and the Beast stories–where each character is revealed to have aspects of both. Though this is a really great example, for sure, and I think Ivory’s writing in general is just first-rate. There have been some discussions lately about prose quality in romance and so I guess that’s why I was focused a lot on the writing specifically when I was reading. But there’s a fluidity to her transitions between scenes that struck me as uncommon. There’s this one scene early on when Louise shows up to Charles’ stateroom slightly sloshed. But there’s a chapter break in there. And I feel like a lot of writers would have…well…forgotten that Louise had already been drinking. It’s a relatively trivial example, but the book is just loaded with them.
AJH: I agree – there’s definitely a kind of ornate density to her prose. I could also why someone might be inclined to see it as florid, but I found it incredibly compelling and effective.
Elisabeth: It’s interesting that you use the word florid. I can certainly see where someone might say she’s indulging in “purple prose”. But it’s one of those things about romance that I think is endemic to the genre. There’s an emotional quality to prose that has a lushness, which is sometimes denigrated. But I think it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t have power. Out of context, it’s easy to make fun of. But within the framework of a love story, it’s just one way to enhance the impact of these people on each other and on the reader.
AJH: It really worked for me. I was often very taken by how vivid it was. The imagery around Louise, in particular, is so redolent of sensuality and wealth: at one point she’s described as wearing a necklace of black pearls that look like caviar. I thought that was so striking. Although there was actually a moment in the story when I was like “ohmygodtoomuch!” It’s the scene at the end where Charles gives Louise a necklace of black pearls (to replace the ones she lost on the ship) and she has a strong negative reaction to them. As a consequence, the prose becomes almost unbearable – the sheer weight of the words bearing down on you. But, again, when I took a step back, I realised just how well that scene had been constructed, and the way the language both framed and reflected Louise’s fear and confusion:
The necklace’s miserable clasp had eighty-seven pieces to it. It was hard and sharp-edged and tiny. Her blasted hair was everywhere, in the way, snarling through a pearl-strung nightmare. A heavy, slithering strand, parted over one breast, a cord that swayed, as slick as glass, all but alive, licking, flicker-tongued, to her waist, looping.
Elisabeth: It’s interesting that you noticed that. I…um…didn’t. I think I’ve just been reading romance for so long that I don’t even question that stuff any more, but looking back at the passage you’re describing, I can see that you’re obviously right. I just thought it of it as a particularly emotional scene. One that should have been the pivotal scene really, but felt broken into two parts. The ending felt fractured to me, which is one of my few criticisms of the book.
AJH: How so?
Elisabeth: I just got very impatient with Charles and Louise at the end. There’s this moment where Louise had figured out the truth of their interactions on the ship, but Charles is unwilling to admit what he’d done. His admission comes right at the end, right when it’s almost too late and Louise is ready to give up on him. Some of the crisis happened too late for me.
AJH: I can see why you felt that, but I was pretty satisfied by it. My favourite line in the whole book is when Charles says to Louise “I want you to choose me. Freely. I want you to come at me headlong with all the force of your steely will.” It’s swoonishly romantic but it also seemed important to me that the ending of the book was … a choice for Louise? Like she actually gets to do that. Not just be swept away in a tide of strong feelz and revelations and forgiveness. So the scene that felt-like-the-climax-but-wasn’t didn’t trouble me. But you said that was one of your few criticisms. What were the others? I have to confess I read it in a tide of joy and didn’t really have any.
Elisabeth: What kept cropping up for me, particularly in the first half of the book, were these vaguely uncomfortable concerns about cultural appropriation. It’s something that I had a hard time wrapping my head around since it has this white hero pretending to be not white for his own purposes.
AJH: Well, I don’t think it’s meant to be okay?
Elisabeth: Well, I agree with that ultimately, but it was a close thing for me. It seems to me that Ivory is at least aware of what she’s up to. Louise does go to the ship’s library and attempt to learn more about the supposed culture of her “Arab” lover. And there’s an acknowledgement in the way Ivory describes this research Louise does in the ship’s library when she discovers her lover’s Arab identity–”all interpreted through Western prejudice” as Ivory says–that seems to indicate she understands the potential for giving offense. And then again at the end where I might be reading too much into this–“Her pasha, for God’s sake. Why did women think this way?”–but maybe seems like…a dig at romance’s propensity for, well, fetishizing Sheikhs.
AJH: I did wonder if that was a reference to the Sheikh romance thing. And I did also tilt my head a bit about the whole Arab-disguise subplot. Obviously, I can see that for some readers it might just be a straight up No Go area in the sense that it’s just objectively wrong to appropriate another culture in that way, even if you’re aware that it’s wrong. I mean, there was really no reason Charles couldn’t have disguised himself as A Different White Dude. For me though, like you, there were a couple of mitigating factors that didn’t make it too awful (but this is just me – someone else’s mileage may vary) which is the awareness you mention. And there’s also the fact the whole ruse is only possible because they’re both vastly ignorant, and his ignorance is regularly demonstrated. Like when Charles orders champagne. While pretending to be a Muslim. Cough.
Elisabeth: That’s something that consistently trips me up when it comes to Sheikh romance. It’s rare to find one that I think handles the religious questions well or fairly.
AJH: I confess, it’s not a subgenre I’ve much explored. I’m a bit nervous of it for, well, the reasons you mention above. How do you find it?
Elisabeth: Well, to tell you the truth, I’ve only read half a dozen myself and have yet to find one that didn’t push one button or another. I’m open to suggestions to though if anyone out there has one they particularly favor.
AJH: Any final thoughts on Beast?
Elisabeth: Mainly that as with most authors I end up adoring, I just love Ivory’s sense of humor. There are these little jokes and ironies sprinkled throughout that just make the book enormously fun and engaging. Otherwise I think we’ve pretty well covered it. I have to go glom the rest of Ivory’s backlist now.
AJH: I loved it, but I’m a fan of Ivory in general. There’s so many little details in this book that delighted me – I adored the ways she played on the fairytale, and our expectations of it, and I thought ambergris worked really well as a ‘rose’ symbol substitute. And I am just a sucker for Unsympathetic People Romances. Which isn’t to say that either Louise or Charles are that awful, it’s just they’re full of unglamously human flaws and insecurities. And I totally dig that stuff.
We hope you’ll join us in the comments for more discussion of Beast because, honestly, we had real trouble stopping talking about it.
And if you want to read-along at home, next month we’ll be looking at: Getting Dirty by Erin Nichols.
Elisabeth and Alexis