Desert Isle Keeper
It has been two years since I first read Sleeping Beauty (published in 1998), and as I reread this favorite of mine recently, I found it an even greater delight the second time around. While most romances fade from my memory rather quickly, this is one I clearly hadn’t forgotten and I found myself experiencing a strong rush of affection on the very first page when James, the endearing and ever-optimistic hero, is introduced.
Sir James Stoker hadn’t known it was possible to be this happy. Having returned from a three year expedition to Africa only weeks before, James is appreciating just about everything “English” and the fact that Queen Victoria recently knighted him only serves to increase his enthusiasm for life. Added to other recent honors bestowed upon him, he is now the Vice-Provost of his college at Cambridge, chairman of the Council of the Senate’s Financial Board and Deputy Vice-Chancellor. Few men can boast of James’s accomplishments in the world of academia at the mere age of 29 and, combined with his African adventures, James basks in his fame and enjoys the money it provides.
Although Coco Wild doesn’t look 37 years old, she is surrounded by an air of wisdom and serenity seldom found in younger women. Rarely seen without a smile on her face, Coco possesses an extreme beauty that has not faded with age, while her sensual manner continues to captivate men of all ages. A woman with a very questionable past, Coco is not ashamed of the choices she has made in life that have left her a wealthy woman able to live in a state of contented independence. She’s had her share of parties but no longer finds swarms of people all that amusing and she is altogether too sensible to ever risk her heart to a man – especially one years younger than herself.
The possibility of losing a tooth has left Coco feeling rather vulnerable about her age. As she sits quietly sobbing in a corner of the dentist’s parlor, James offers clove buds to help dull the ache, only to discover it is her pride that hurts most of all. Coco can’t help being drawn to this gallant man who makes her laugh with his flirtatious antics. And James finds himself more than a little discomfited with the way he is pouring out his heart to this lovely sympathetic stranger – voicing things he had always considered best unsaid. As Coco prepares to leave, James impulsively asks her to attend a social function with him only to have her respond that he is a lovely, young man, a dear, who must find himself a nice young woman to escort to parties.
Destiny seems to have other plans for James and Coco as they are placed in each other’s company frequently over the following weeks. James seeks Coco’s companionship at every opportunity and in any way possible, as he openly shares his ardor for her – only to be soundly rejected. When fate finally places them both in Cambridge, Coco, against her better judgment, allows a discreet yet platonic relationship to develop. She knows society’s dictates for academic leadership and that any perceived involvement with her will harm, if not ruin, James’s golden reputation and any political aspirations he or others may have for him. Coco also realizes that she could easily lose her heart to James and will not risk the vulnerability he so easily exhibits with her.
James never thought he could find a friend such as Coco and, although he wants her as a lover, he needs a friend who understands him and, therefore, the romance develops slowly and realistically. James exhibits such ease in sincerely communicating his feelings about life in general and Coco specifically, that she finds herself humbled by his actions since she feels incapable of baring her soul to such a degree. Regardless, James and Coco’s interaction is rich with each shared scene deeply interwoven with the next.
James is singular in his attraction as a hero. He respects Coco, despite rumors of her past dalliances, and sees her only as a beautiful woman both physically and spiritually with never a thought for her age other than to reassure her. An extremely intelligent man who is humble despite his vast popularity as an African explorer, James is honest almost to a fault, perceptive, and possesses the ability to deeply care for a woman. It is refreshing to read about a hero who has experienced some extreme hardships in life without having to tolerate the tortured hero syndrome. There is guilt, regret, and sadness but none is cause for dysfunctional behavior.
Coco, with her maturity and ability to enjoy life despite all of her blunders, easily rates as one of my favorite heroines. She laughs easily, communicates truthfully, and understands life. Her self-sacrificial attitude towards James carries not a trace of martyrdom and instead exhibits a rational acceptance of the consequences society will force upon James in particular should their relationship become public knowledge.
As I read the last paragraph of Sleeping Beauty, I felt the typical disappointment when approaching the end of a fantastic book, but even greater was a sense of thankfulness towards the author – her finesse, her talent, and the utter satisfaction she provides the reader. They don’t get much better than this.