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
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
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