I like an author that knows her audience is intelligent. Judith Ivory writes elegantly and is not afraid to use larger words. She writes like she knows we can understand the more complicated phrases, like she knows we can hold an idea in our heads for longer than a page. Sleeping Beauty, although slightly complicated and written intelligently, is basically a book based on a Big Misunderstanding.
Coco is a woman of the world. Not born into the upper class, she socializes on the edges of that class due to her connections as a courtesan. The only person allowed to get close to her emotionally is her adult son, David.
James, freshly back from an African Geological expedition of which he was the only survivor, is on top of the world. He has met the queen and been knighted. He has been appointed to an important position at Cambridge, and his name is on “the list”, meaning he could be given a title from the queen. He is for the first time in his life well off and courted by high society. Not too bad for a son of working class parents.
When Coco and James meet, there is an instant attraction. James begins the complicated process of courting Coco, despite the fact that she is seven years his senior and has a questionable background. Coco tries to dissuade James at every turn, figuring that his star is rising and her reputation could cause it to drop. James doesn’t know how to think of his developing relationship with Coco. Does she want him to keep her? Does she want an affair? Coco dissuades him from any of that and only accepts his friendship. One night of passion, and Coco decides to leave for the Continent, never planning to see James again. Fate brings them together, and after ending some political intrigue involving the treasure James brought back from Africa and sorting through personal difficulties, the two are finally together.
Sleeping Beauty is a gentle look at two people getting to know one another and overcoming personal and social obstacles. The descriptions of the people and surroundings are artful, almost but not quite to the point of being overdone. James is wonderful in his youth and brashness, honesty and honor. The book starts in a dentist’s office, which I thought was unique, and mostly takes place on or near the campus of Cambridge, which is also different from any other British Historical I have read. The couple’s intimate moments were steamy; their moments together as friends were comfortable.
There were also a few things I didn’t like about the book. Coco is confusing – is she intimate with half of high society including the crown prince? We (James and the Reader) never know. Coco never feels the need to apologize for her past, which I agreed with completely – she made the best of what she had to become secure and successful. But a bit of explaining would have been nice. If she had been intimate with the men that were hinted at, her character would have been more of a puzzle to me as none of them had many redeemable qualities. James was really the only likeable person in this book, with Queen Victoria being one of the only other good guys. James kept thinking to himself how wonderful she was, and yet the only positive side the readers saw of Coco is that she loved her son, she was non-judgmental, and she could keep her mouth shut.
I’ve always enjoyed romances that are based on dialogue, and Sleeping Beauty had plenty of high quality dialogue. I have no problem with the older woman aspect, or the experienced woman aspect, but somehow this book left me feeling inexplicably unclean. I am grateful however, that it was written with such intelligence.