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Sleeping Beauty by Judith Ivory
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-380-78645-1
For me, the issue of a new Judith Ivory romance is indeed a much anticipated event. When I found Sleeping Beauty in my mailbox, sent to me by my esteem'd editor, I confess I did a little dance of happiness around my hydrangeas.

Until about a year ago, I was unaware of Judith Ivory, who also writes as Judy Cuevas. It was then that my sister, whose literary tastes are impeccable, insisted that I read Beast. Judith Ivory, she told me, is the author one reads while waiting for Laura Kinsale to write another book. This is high praise indeed; but after reading Ivory, I discovered that she is another sort of genius altogether.

Like Kinsale, Ivory is an incredibly gifted writer, whose books are of literary quality; like Kinsale, she is one of the handful of romance authors writing today, who I believe will still be read one-hundred years from now. But Kinsale and Ivory are also quite different writers; for while Kinsale's books are full of Brontesque sturm and drang, Ivory calls to mind the restrained polish of a Henry James or Edith Wharton.

Sleeping Beauty, like Ivory's earlier Beast, is a very loose adaptation of a classic fairy tale. Though they borrow much of the psychological power of the old tales, they are still firmly rooted in a historical reality. Sleeping Beauty takes place in England of the 1870s, at a time when the British Empire was the greatest power on earth. James Stoker, a handsome young geologist, has just returned from an expedition in Africa. For the moment, he is the England's golden boy and for having survived a dangerous adventure that killed scores of lesser men, and lugging back incredible riches to lay at the Queen's feet, James the coachman's son is knighted and transformed into Sir James.

Although the expedition to Africa nearly killed him, James now has the world as his oyster. He hopes to receive a Chair at Cambridge, and continue with his beloved geological studies. Because Queen Victoria is taken with his princely looks and irresistible charm, it is expected that he will be rewarded with an earldom. But when James meets the beautiful and charismatic Coco Wild in a dentist's office, all bets for his brilliant future are off.

Coco is exactly what James doesn't need, just as his star is on the rise. She is the archetypal woman with a past a legendary courtesan who has known tycoons, kings, emperors, who is rumored to have had a liaison with the Prince of Wales. But she is also just what James needs at the moment. Career poison she may be, but nonetheless he quickly becomes infatuated with her.

As for Coco, the Sleeping Beauty of the story, she cannot take the impetuous young knight seriously. He may be every young maiden's dream, but Coco is no longer young or a maiden. Coco is approaching thirty-eight. She feels old, ready to retire, and wants nothing more now than a quiet life. She is amused, flattered, and strangely discombobulated by James' ardent pursuit of her. She does whatever she can to put him off, for Coco always does the pragmatic thing; but soon, she realizes that she is still young enough to be in danger of falling in love with James, and having her carefully ordered existence made into mayhem.

She, too, is an outsider to English society. She is also of lowly birth, the daughter of a French papermill worker. Beginning as a scullery maid, she unapologetically used what assets she had to make her way up in the world. As Coco says, there were few ways in those days for a woman to accrue wealth. James, even while he is honored and feted as a hero, feels alone and alienated. He feels he has somehow lost his Englishness during his years in Africa, and the only person who understands him is Coco.

And yet, for James and Coco to have more than a clandestine affair could be a deadly mistake. As in the fairy tale, evil forces are lurking, threatening to destroy them both. It is up to James has he the bravery to battle the dragon, cut his way through thorns and fire to rescue his princess? And Coco, the woman who has made a business of love her heart may have slept for a hundred years, but can it now awaken? The moment Coco wakes up which is superbly rendered in a Victorian dentist's chair is a wonderful piece of writing that lovers of literary romance should not be miss.

Sleeping Beauty is yet another extraordinary book by an extraordinary writer. As with the finest of historical novelists, Ivory is a thorough scholar on her chosen era. I always felt, while reading about her Victorian characters, that I was in the most capable of hands. The use of the fairy tale, as with Ivory's earlier Beast, is very subtle while this re-telling of Sleeping Beauty still retains the fairy tale's timeless allure, the strength of the book is Ivory's magnificent writing. Like Henry James, she is polished, understated. Not a word is put forth that doesn't seem perfectly considered; also like Henry James, beneath that polite facade of words, a maelstrom of emotions seethe. Judith Ivory can communicate volumes with the description of a satin bustle.

In giving Sleeping Beauty a rave review, and this review should not be considered anything less, I might also add a small caution. Judith Ivory does not idealize her heroes and heroines. Certainly they are always larger than life, but she is such a close and truthful observer of human behavior that the portraits she draws are not uniformly pretty. While some readers may find this unappealing, others such as myself find it utterly fascinating. Sleeping Beauty will definitely have my vote for one of the best books of the year.

-- Meredith Moore

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