Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-380-78645-1
Historical Romance, 1998
This is my favorite Judith Ivory romance at the time of writing. This is the book that succeeds in capturing everything I love about this author’s writing. I don’t know, but Ms Ivory always have this way with words. She can bring out the characters’ thoughts, quirks, and reactions to life so well, while at the same time, her characters are less than perfect cookie-cutter romance characters.
Actually, for the most part nothing happens in Sleeping Beauty, except for the main characters’ interaction and emotional development. In Queen Victoria’s time, Coco Wild is a retired courtesan – yes, a courtesan, and not a misunderstood single mother courtesan into the biz because she had ten kids to breastfeed or some other nonsense. She is at the dentist’s one day agonizing over her aching tooth when she encounters a young man named James Stoker. James is a recently knighted hero, sort of like a more human version of David Livingstone, having returned to England after getting lost in Africa, living with some natives, and coming home holding maps and clues to some gold mine.
And so they go. James is attracted very much to her, but he has his career to consider. Coco is more pragmatic – she knows she is a fallen woman, and while she too wants to play, well, let’s face it, idealism and love-conquers-everything is a nice concept, but what are the chances of anything happening between her and a much younger man destined for greatness? As it turns out, plenty.
And plenty indeed. James is a wonderful hero. On one hand, he is no over-the-top hero, not even a single alpha bone in him. Human is how I would describe him, for he is just an ordinary guy with big dreams thrust into an environment he is way out of league. There are weaknesses in him as well as strengths, and that’s what makes him a memorable character. His lack of varied sexual expertise in also a rather cute thing, but at the end of the day, he does kick into action and fight for Coco. My hero.
Coco is a bit more problematic, even if she is a mature, intelligent, and sensible heroine (no mincing innocent bluestocking stripping to save her family home, yay). But I can see the editor’s scissors heavy at work: Coco’s courtesan past is never fully cohesive. There are brief mentions that she has done stuff involving champagne and birthday suits, but what exactly did she do to make her so well-known a courtesan? While I love how she makes no apologizes for her past – at one point she even wags the metaphorical middle finger at James when he takes her to task for it (only, of course, she does it more elegantly than a thrust of the finger in the air) – I would love to see more of her reflections and thoughts on her career. But nonetheless, Coco is a heroine whose wit, vulnerabilities, strengths – everything about her – are always endearing in a real and human way.
And the romance? Just beautiful. The theme here is both characters’ awakening, not sexual, but emotional awakening, Sleeping Beauty style, and there is a poetic scene in the dentist’s office where under the influence of nitrous oxide, she experiences a revelation. (Yeah, I know, but hey, a little bit of junkie stuff in a romance novel can’t be that bad.) While James does the chasing and is actually a sweet, charming boy at the end of the time, Coco is the one who dominates this romance, playing James’ mother as well as lover in a really sweet Mrs Robinson way. Oh, and since this is a romance set in the academia of Oxbridge university, and Coco is the older and more sexually experienced heroine, I really dig the Mrs Robinson vibe.
Oh, and James is scared of bats. Which is why this scene in an opera house makes it all the more magical.
“All I do is think of you,” he continued, “while I walk around feeling as if I have just swallowed my heart, as if it were beating inside my stomach. Here.” He reached into his pocket, withdrew something, then heaved his arm back. He threw whatever it was up to her.
It was small, whizzing by, then landing with a little tap. Jay picked it up and handed it to Coco.
She stared at it in her palm: it was a tooth. Someone’s disgusting tooth.
Wait. It was her disgusting tooth. The disgusting tooth she had given her Nitrous Oxide James, which the real James below had just tossed up to her opera box.
She bit the edge of her lip and looked down over the rail again. Had he really been there? What had she said? Awful things. Like the truth. Like what she really thought. Except that she didn’t remember telling him that she loved him, which was the truth as well. “Oh, James,” she said. “Where have you been?”
“I don’t know where I have been. Asleep. African sleeping sickness. But I’m awake now,” he yelled up at her, “and I want to put it back.”
“Put what back?” The vast auditorium had grown absolutely attentive.
“Your tooth,” he called up. “Please. Let’s put it back as it was.”
Any child could see there was no putting back what she held in her hand. “You can’t.”
“No,” he agreed. For a moment her James looked more cheerless than she could even imagine seeing. But then James the Stalwart, the relentless man who had crawled through the jungles and ridden thirsty on a desert and battled bats, was about to proceed –
When the mechanical bat took another plunge at him. He ducked, waved his hands for a frantic moment. “Coco!” he called over the next foray. As if she might save him, but by then a doorman had his arm.
James ducked the bat once more, then, on rising, his arm simply came out. Straight from the shoulder. That was James. Nothing devious. He simply and straightforwardly decked the fellow.
She laughed; she wanted to weep.
“Coco!” James called again.
Five more liveried doormen took hold of him at once. They all but lifted him, while he yelled, “Coco -” He faltered, an oof as they grappled. “I want -” he said. The bat hit him, a misguidance on its puppeteer’s part, she thought. It ran into the back of James’ shoulder. He leaped as if the devil had found him. “Jesus,” he said loudly. Then he spoke very quickly from here: “Coco, I want you to marry me. I don’t give a-a-a flying bat what anyone says. I love you. I’m unhappy without you. No one is as-as-as real as you are to me. I am connected to you somehow, the way I am connected to myself.”
Now the place hushed. Coco rose slightly onto her toes, her fan dropping to dangle from her wrist. She rested her belly against the railing, leaning slightly, as if she could get closer. She couldn’t have heard correctly.
“I love you,” he said again. Someone cheered in the front circle. The largest doorman, who had James by the scruff of the neck, let go. The others seemed perplexed. Cautiously, romantics that they were, they turned him loose. “Your fairytale ending. Marry me. Become Mrs James Stoker. Or Dame Edith, if you prefer. I want to wake up beside you forever. And if there is anyone who doesn’t like that, he or she can go jump in the Thames.”
When Coco lifts her skirts, spins around, and runs down all the way to James, calling “Yes! I’m saying yes! You wait right there!”, I feel as if there’s this part of me that is running along with Coco too. You know, this book, at the end of the day with its whimsical outlook, beautifully written characters, and wonderful emotional drama has stolen a piece of me with it. I love it. I reread this book every few months, and I keep falling in love with it again. So yeah, this book is great. It’s mine. Anyone who dares take it from me will eat my fist.
And oh yes, the sex is hot.