Beast by Judith Ivory
aka Judy Cuevas, (Avon, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-380-78644-3
*****
Consider the beast: Charles Harcourt, a wealthy Frenchman of aristocratic ancestry, purveyor of luxury goods, especially floral essences for the manufacture of perfume. Self-assured, flamboyant, brilliant, and damaged.

Behold the beauty: Louise Amelda-May Vandermeer, eighteen-year-old scion of a fabulously wealthy American shipping magnate, lovely beyond comprehension, willful, confused, self-involved, and engaged, sight unseen, to the Prince d'Harcourt.

The prince travels incognito on the same ocean-liner that brings his bride-to-be and her entourage to France in 1902. When he accidentally discovers Louise in a clandestine flirtation with a ship's officer, a turbulent crossing is assured.

One half of Beast is devoted to Charles' shipboard seduction of his betrothed. They meet in utter darkness. His disfigurement and identity are hidden. Charles listens to Louise. He smells Louise. He touches Louise. And, by the end of the journey, he is utterly in thrall to Louise.

Poor Charles. He is in big trouble now, because the lovers must part. Louise must join her affianced beast.

Charles is confident he can make Louise love him again; he anticipates, in agony, the joys awaiting him upon his marriage. Unfortunately Charles has overlooked the difficulty of wooing a woman who is shatteringly in love with another man, even if the other man is himself.

The scene on their wedding night, when Louise calmly tells Charles she wishes to sleep alone, is heartbreaking:

Any charm on that strange face of his had fled completely. Without it, his expression, his whole posture took on a ferocious edge a look of sullen disbelief made fierce by size and mass and facial anomaly. She had seen him cast a fearsome look at other people, but she had never been the recipient of such a countenance. One moment, she couldn't look away: his face, his mien so fascinatingly terrible to witness. The next, she couldn't bear the sight.

But Charles does not give up. Having won Louise once in the darkness, he must win her again in the light. Over and over he plans to tell her of his deception; but the time is never right. Over and over he debates the benefits of disclosure versus his fear of Louise's unknowable response. Over and over he tries to make her see him. Desperate to make contact, he confronts Louise in her bath, shedding clothing as he repeats, "Look at me. Am I such a repulsive fellow as all that?"

Well, no, as it turns out. The love scene that follows is ... indescribable. Unprecedented. Magnificent. And so it goes, crescendo after crescendo, until the moment when Louise knows the beast and the man who brings her out of herself, who makes her real.

This simple overview cannot begin to convey the depth and texture and nuance of Ivory/Cuevas' writing: the complexity of her characters, the intricacy of her plotting, and the resonance of the symbolism she binds into this new and gorgeous restatement of our favorite love story.

Enjoy Beast. And if you have not yet had the pleasure, read Bliss and Dance published by Berkley/Jove under the Judy Cuevas name.

--Lee Gilmore


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