Black Silk
by Judith Ivory, historical (2002)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-06-009853-8

This is a slightly revised and reedited version of the 1991 book (same title) published under the name Judy Cuevas. I'll be very interested to see how different (or not) this book is from the original. See, here's the problem: have you ever seen how the last two chapters of utter, drekkish conventional resolutions almost ruin a story? Meet Black Silk.

It is rather hard for me to give a plot summary of Black Silk. Like most books by this author, nothing happens, but a lot of things happen. Okay, let's put it this way: there is nothing significantly dramatic happening in here, no bombs, no French spies, no secret agent heroes, nothing of that sort, no. But as the lives of Submit Channing-Downes and Graham Wessit unfurl, there is lot of drama, epiphany, soul-searching, and humorous yet poignant scenes that this author does best. A smarter Henry Miller heroine, a more optimistic Edith Wharton type of look at romance, a Tackhery hero without the permanent sneer, and scorching eroticism that made Submit's simple act of hanging her laundry to dry seems like something out of an Anais Nin novel, that's Black Silk. Of course, that's just my opinion. (I'm putting this down because I always get flamed by someone who doesn't get this author's books every time I write a review of a book by this author.)

The basic premise is this: Submit Wharton, a merchant's daughter (Dad was an abattoir godfather, and no, she and Daddy weren't close at all) married Henry Channing-Downes when she was 16 and he pushing 70. They had a happy, lovely, sexual marriage, and now that he was dead, she genuinely mourns his passing and misses him. Henry had a ward he all but disowned: Graham Wessit, a notorious rake who spends his time womanizing and taking up silly bets while experimenting with explosives. (Yes, his firecracker is one hot commodity.) Their lives cross for the first time when Submit hands over a box filled with erotic drawings (her husband's bequest to Graham).

This is not a romance story where the hero and heroine meet in some weird plot contrivance that force them to share closed space. The love here doesn't happen in the middle to be padded with mystery and suspense stuff. There are a child paternity suit and Submit and her stepson's battle over Henry's will, but they are merely secondary elements in this character-driven romance.

In a way, I can say that Graham's soul-searching drives this story. Be warned: he is not a purely likable hero like the heroes of Judith Ivory's recent, more accessible romances. He's a rake, pure and simple, and the way he treats his mistress Rosalyn sometimes make me wince. But Ms Ivory also creates a hero of breathtaking depths in Graham: he is fascinating. His issues with his guardian, whom he hates even as he is still haunted by his sense of failure in pleasing the man and his complex and confusing feelings regarding both Rosalyn and Submit all make him a hero that is both human and real.

Submit is more of a problem. She has some issues too, but as the story progresses, she seems to change into a completely different woman. Ms Ivory probably tries to make Submit a woman who craves stability and authority in her life only to slowly learn that there is fun in chaos too, but Submit's character doesn't gel. There is a delightful exuberance in the scenes where Submit discovers the joy of writing lurid, risqué stories and throws herself into her new hobby in a fervor that borders on religious enlightenment. But these changes are abrupt, maybe because more time is spent on Graham's character development rather than Submit's. Most of her character development is seen through Graham's eyes, and while it is understandable and even touching how Graham moves slowly from feeling amused disdain to obsessing over Submit, it also causes Submit to remain an enigma to the very end.

Rosalyn, the third figure in this story, is also a character that stands on her own right. Be warned: Graham spends two-thirds of this story with her, and at one point, he even believes that he is in love with her. His love for Submit crystallizes only late in the story: in Black Silk, love, not marriage or saving the heroine from some French spy, is the climax of the story, the ultimate El Dorado. A married woman who yearns for adventure and thrills to the point that she just cannot appreciate her besotted husband, she flings herself to Graham with abandon. Like Graham, she's not entirely likable, but despite being cast as the Other Woman, she is also a very sympathetic character. Even at her lowest, she manages to retain her dignity. The author dangles a possibility of Rosalyn reuniting with her husband, and I wish I can follow their story to the very end.

But the story's last few chapters seem rushed and to me, indecipherable. Submit seems to withdraw into her shell for no rhyme or reason, runs away to do a Really Stupid Thing, Graham chases after her, and after some Rushed Sex Thing, everything is a typical romance all over again: shallow, rushed, and not worthy of the emotional complexity this story displays throughout its last 400 pages. Submit and Graham's relationship is not fully developed yet, I want to yell in frustration, it's just not right they have sex and pow! Marriage and happily ever after? What? I will love it more if this story can do away with that silly final sex scene - that staircase surprise sex thing can stay - and let these two lovebirds end the story with a high note and promise. I don't know, maybe a slight touch of hands or something? Something that hints of a future development of their relationship perhaps, just like how the splendorous Beast ended.

As it is, it's just too much for me to take, this neat and unconvincing hurtling of Graham and Submit into a conventional, trite resolution to a happy ending. I'm tempted to fail this book out of spite. I do feel cheated very badly, you know.

But I have to reconsider. The dialogs are so lovely on the ears and wit, a perfect touch of cynicism and wistfulness. There's something tragic and noble about Rosalyn sleeping with Graham's shoes by her side, something glorious about Submit's discovering lurid adult novels, and something very heartbreaking about Graham's relationship with his children (yes, he has a few of 'em, a pair of twins and a foundling baby). The last one is no Care Bear relationship, so don't expect happy giggles. Submit is not the new nanny.

For a whole part, Black Silk is a lush, emotionally rich and complex read. Graham is a very fascinating character, flawed yet seductive, and Submit, well, she's halfway decent, I guess, although I find Rosalyn a more compelling character. No doubt readers looking for more conventionally plotted romance stories will be turned off by Black Silk's lack of clear black/white moralistic stances or happy, neat plot closures, but readers who love the author's previous books will probably enjoy this one as much as I do.

This is not one of Judith Ivory's better books and I wish the author has spent another 200 or 300 more pages to develop Submit and Graham's relationship. Their rushed happy ending really ruins this story. Dang. But I have to admit, it is almost magical while it lasted.

Rating: 88

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