The Proposition
by Judith Ivory, historical (1999)
Avon, $6.50, ISBN 0-380-80260-0


I'm in awe with the divine storytelling ability of Ms Ivory. If she is a filmmaker, her "films" would probably be bandied around in hushed and reverent whispers by art house students and bag up every award in Cannes. Of course, The Proposition is yet another ongoing glitter in Ms Ivory's increasingly bright limelight. It is also her most accessible romance to date, and the latent art student snob in me is worried that she may just embrace conventionality altogether. Let's hope her elegant prose isn't sacrificed in the process.

Judging from her books, The Proposition features a novelty - instantly likable characters. Edwina Bollash is humble, modest, shy, the sort of heroine favorite of many romance readers, although to Ms Ivory's credit, Edwina or Winnie has enough substance to hold her own. Winnie is a far cry from the elegantly spoiled heroine in Beast. Mick Tremore is charming, affable, and radiates radioactive likability.

Imagine my pleasant surprise and my shame of my less-than-noble presumptions when I find myself hooked line and sinker from the first sentence. Mud will never be the same again, and I will never be able to put some on my face without blushing profusely. And like all things beautiful and Ivory, this book is an utterly romantic and fascinating portrait of characters. Mick and Edwina are two of the most fascinating characters I have ever read.

Winnie is a lady who has long sunk from her former high life after she was thrown out of her home by the new heir to her father's properties. She has a fascinating for dialects and language in all glorious and vulgar forms, and she makes a moderately successful living as a woman who polishes up awkward debutantes into marriageable beauties. Mick Tremore is a charming, gregarious, and (you can bet your last penny he is) virile rat-catcher. He has left his home in Cornwall to seek out money to support his large family of siblings. Two very different people whose lives would never have crossed if one day Mick hasn't spied a pair of the most gorgeous legs in a changing room while he is rat-busting a modiste's shop. Later, their paths cross when Edwina is pulled into a bet to turn Mick into a gentleman in six weeks. She will get to spite her uncle who threw her out of her home, and he will get more money that he could earn in a year rat-catching if their plan succeeds. Of course, that's what they tell themselves. With Mick, Winnie finds her sexual awakening and realization of her inner and outer beauty. And with Winnie, Mick learns to dream of things he once deemed impossible.

To reveal more will be doing whoever reading this a great disservice. Go grab a copy, will you? Mick and Winnie's relationship develops like a dreamlike euphoria: every word delights the senses and every move and touch throbs with sexual awareness. And I also can't look at windowsills, long skirts, and pencils without fanning myself. Ms Ivory combines humor and sexual chemistry in one palpable mix of lyrical and elegant prose. How does she do that? I am enthralled with every word in every page - no word seems unnecessary or out of place, every word seems to fall into place to enhance this really sensual and romantic story.

The only quibble I have is the ending. After all the things the author is capable of, she decides to play it safe by providing safety nets for this wonderful couple's future. Sure, the ending may be the only right ending for a romance, but I can't help feeling cheated. An oh-so-conventional ending from an author who writes of the beauty in madness in Bliss? I feel so disappointed!

If Beast is a portrait of the pain and pleasure of being caught in the gilded cage of beauty, Sleeping Beauty a more conventional study of the futility and power of dreams and yearnings. And The Proposition is an even more accessible if magical twist on the Pygmalion tale. While I lose myself in the breathtaking prose, fascinating characters, and poignant relationship between Mick and Winnie (for some reason I keep thinking of this book as a story Titanic could only aspire to be - must be the dance scene), I am also somewhat worried that this trend of increasing conventionality and accessibility may just have adverse effects on future Ivory books. Sure, it is one thing to cater to the public demands, but I hope Ms Ivory doesn't sacrifice her lyrical penmanship. She is too great a storyteller to be normal. Please don't ever be.

Rating: 91


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