by Judith Ivory, historical (1997)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-380-78644-3
I have often heard Beast being described as this author's most overrated book, but I haven't actually encountered many readers that actually like this book. Is it just me then? Maybe Beast is more appropriately called this author's most underrated book. Who knows?
What I do know is that Beast is definitely not a book for readers whose automatic reaction to beautiful and vain heroines is to think of how unhappy these readers were in high school and start channeling the hate onto this book. Neither it is a book for readers who prefer to read about nice and self-effacing women. (From what I observe from readers reaction to this book, these same people who often hate Louise often have no problems rooting for Charles, who is actually as "bad" as Louise in every way. Ah, the blind spots and double standards where male characters are concerned, heh.)
The heroine of this book, Louise "Lulu" Amelda-May Vandermeer is a breathtakingly beautiful eighteen-year old only daughter of a very rich American whaling magnate in the early 1900s and she behaves just like one would expect a beautiful rich young lady would: self-absorbed and confident of her value, the last often coupled with disdain for the lesser mortals around her. The hero of this book at first glance seems to be the beast to Louise's beauty: Charles Harcourt, a French prince (although the title is merely ceremonial in nature), is blind in one eye thanks to a childhood infection and is limp in one leg, but his physical appearances aside, he's actually as vain and arrogant as Louise. He runs a perfume empire and has a taste for women of superlative physical appearances. He is also thirty-seven years old to Louise's eighteen, although I'd argue that he's actually not much more mature than Louise.
Neither connoisseurs of beautiful objects are aware of how well-matched they are for each other, however. Louise is a means for her father to secure an heir to the Vandermeer shipping line as well as a princely son-in-law to boost the family prestige. Charles doesn't really know why he wants a wife other than the fact that he's frustrated that his mistress, whom he's fond of, is married and not leaving her husband for him anytime soon. Still, the marriage could be beneficial for his business as he would have access to a steady source of ambergris. It is Charles' business dealing with the Vandermeers - to buy ambergris - that introduces the idea of this match into the heads of Harold and Isabel Vandermeer. Louise, needless to say, doesn't know what she wants or intends to get from this match.
What she does know is that she is beautiful, well-read, and well-trained to impress her parents' acquaintances with her poise, looks, and education. She is also a woman of her time and station: she fully intends to enter this marriage, expects nothing except for a few children, and has full intention of taking lovers on the side. Likewise, Charles has no intentions of giving up his mistress Pia (although she doesn't agree with this - not that he knows this at first!). Both are aware that this is a marriage where love is an elusive concept. Louise doesn't even believe in love.
Covertly she scanned the table now, looking at the men. The older ones didn't bother her, as long as they weren't too old. But the plain ones and funny-looking ones and the downright drab... She was pretty enough to have any man. Didn't she deserve a handsome one, at least once before she was married (and perhaps even now and then afterward, if Charles Harcourt was as unsightly as she thought he might be)?
The stark lines that are drawn by both parties are blurred however when Charles, after being thrown out of a sulky Pia's cabin with around a blanket to cover his modesty, sulks in the shadows of the liner Concordia and overhears his future bride Louise meeting a young ship officer in a naughty rendezvous. Louise isn't above sneaking off with handsome young men for some harmless flirtations and maybe a kiss or two. As she tells Charles later, she's "technically" a virgin but she's done some things nonetheless. Charles is piqued when this officer tells Louise that Charles is ugly and lame and Louise seems to buy that story.
Charles's vanity whispered through the dark, its hot breath fanning this offense. I am glorious, it said. Not to be judged by extraordinary standards. I am fabulous to look upon, wonderful to see, unique.
Charles decides to play a game with Louise, where he'd pretend to be a mysterious Egyptian pasha to court Louise, but things get out of hand when he starts feeling too attached to a woman who is happily making a cuckold out of her future husband. He realizes the mess he's made for himself when Louise enters the marriage repulsed at her husband and obviously in love with the fantasy man Charles created for Louise on the Concordia. Can two shallow and vain people actually find a happily-ever-after and more importantly, should I even care about these two nimrods?
Actually, yes. What I do like about this book is how much in character Charles and Louise are. Personally I would find it far more unrealistic if Louise turns out to be another egalitarian selfless nitwit who befriends the maids and just wants to lose all her money so that she can be... er, something, I guess. Instead, Louise has very few friends and she knows why she is better than most women (and why these women in turn dislike and envy her). But while she is outwardly poised like the perfect society debutante, inside she is seething with rebellious emotions that she doesn't fully comprehend. When the story begins, Louise is showing signs of feeling trapped by the expectations everyone - including herself - places on her, but like any teenage girl, she is also confused by these emotions she is experiencing. As the story progresses, Louise has her highs and lows, she isn't an easy character to like, but she's always a fascinating character with many intriguing facets to her personality, thanks to Ms Ivory's deft hand at three-dimensional characterization. Louise comes off as a young lady torn between being a person shaped by her station and upbringing and following those feelings she is only starting to experience, feelings that tell her that she is not happy with her life. The thing is, she isn't sure what she can do to be happy, thus when a mysterious and seductive stranger offers her an adventure, she seizes the opportunity with only a little hesitation.
Charles is equally fascinating as a character. Despite his physical flaws, he is a beautiful man and he has no problems attracting women. But he always surrounds himself with the most beautiful toys because anything less will mean that there is some ugly flaw in him, a concept that his vanity will not consider even once. Louise is the most beautiful toy he will ever have, as evidenced by his swift short-term memory of his professed devotion to Pia once he succeeds in having Louise hooked on his Middle-Eastern alter-ego. One can argue that a thirty-seven year old man should know better than to play with eighteen-year old angst-ridden ice princesses, but history is littered with dirty old rich men and Charles, to his credit, makes a besotted and devoted dirty old rich man better than the Trumps and Kennedies of the world ever would. He has charm in spades and while he is a narcissist like the best of them, he is also generous in his attention and surprisingly wise at recognizing that there is a human being trying to break free from under Louise's polished veneer.
So yes, this is basically a romance story between a dirty rich tosser and his trophy wife. Can this relationship work? Ms Ivory has a believer in me by the last page. The initial courtship is rather unbalanced with Charles playing Louise like a violin in a French melodrama, but as Charles becomes more and more enamored of his pretty, pretty Lulu, Louise begins to hold more power in the relationship, power that she is only starting to recognize and enjoy wielding by the last page. I find that there is an enchanting delight in following the development of their relationship because it's a delicious soap opera of melodramatic ironic moments and subversive wickedness where the author shares a playful wink with the reader at how silly her characters are behaving.
Louise, for example, keeps comparing Charles to her mysterious Egyptian lover and Charles grows more and more exaggeratedly repulsive with each comparison when in truth both men are one and the same. At the same time, Charles becomes more desperate to win back Louise, unfortunately only to make the farcical deceptions he's set in motion even more convoluted. Still, the man manages to remain so likeable in a pathetic sad little dog way that makes me want to pat his head and give him a chewtoy to play with. He is so earnest to woo his wife, so heartbroken when she just keeps refusing to thaw, and so afraid to lose her if he tells her the truth about her mysterious lover Rafi being her husband in disguise as part of Charles' petty attempt to pull a trick on her to assuage his wounded ego.
Louise, to give her credit, is never gullible - the moment she has the opportunity to realize that Charles and Rafi are one and the same, she realizes it at once. She is not angry at the deception - both she and Charles openly acknowledge that they haven't been the nicest people or harbored the purest intentions at the end of the story. No, she's angry at him because he is too afraid to tell her the truth.
So what makes me believe that the relationship will work out for the best? It's the fact that when everything is out in the open, Charles and Louise behave in a manner that is... well, let's just say that they behave like happily long-married couple. The characters complement each other very well, in personality as well as temperament, and they all - and Ms Ivory - know it. There are many cute moments in this book that provide amusing illumination about the characters, such as a scene where Charles proudly points out his beautiful wife to a group of men only to get jealous when they start admiring her too much or annoyed when they don't admire her enough. Or Lulu forgetting for a moment why she is angry with him when Charles tries to chase after her only to tumble down the stairs most clumsily. While these scenes speak volumes about the characters' growing feelings for each other, it is how Charles and Louise force each other to grow up at least a little by the last page that ultimately makes me a believer. They learn that honesty is important for a relationship to work, and this, in my opinion, is a right step towards a wonderful happily-ever-after.
Charles and Louise won't be a conventional romance couple, but they are a loving one nonetheless. He'll always dote on her because it's what he enjoys doing and she will lead him on a merry chase but only as far as her parents' house, because they love each other. With Beast, Ms Ivory demonstrates that she can make romance stories out of characters that most people would say "unworkable" within the confines of the formula of the genre. The again, Beast doesn't follow a formula. It has lush sensuality, fascinating complex characters that refuse to conform to generic labels, gorgeous writing, and of course, a magical romance.
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