Monday, July 18, 2011

In Praise of Ivory, Part I

Although Judith Ivory has been AWOL from the romance scene for several years now, her books remain very important to my standards and expectations as a genre reader. When I was first introduced to romance (don't we all have an origin story?), it was through a high school friend who brought me a bag of ten or so books to borrow. I don't remember most of what was in the bag but I do remember that it contained two books by a writer named Judy Cuevas: Bliss and Dance.

Cuevas would, of course, later go on to write a number of excellent things under her Judith Ivory pseudonym, almost all of which (to varying degrees) would find a place on my keeper shelf. The word that comes to mind is sophisticated. She's just so damned sophisticated. But it's not merely that--it's that she assumes readers are capable of a similar sophistication. There's something very dangerous and wonderful about a book that pays such an extravagant compliment to your intelligence. It's tempting to say that the richness of language and characterization in these books spoiled me for all others; it didn't. But, even still, every time I reread an Ivory, I have to wonder how I'm going to content myself with anything else. The appeal's that visceral. This will be the first in a series of intermittent posts that tries to analyze some of what makes up that appeal.

How about a list? Though I might make minor changes on any given day, depending on what mood I'm in, here's how I generally rank Ivory's books in terms of craft, skill, and delightful idiosyncrasies:

1. Dance
2. Bliss
3. Untie My Heart
4. Beast
5. Black Silk
6. Sleeping Beauty
7. The Indiscretion
8. The Proposition

(Note: I haven't read Angel in a Red Dress. I'll get around to it someday but, for now, it's nice to know that there's one Ivory out there still waiting for me.)

In thinking about Ivory as a stylist, I'll be focusing mainly on Bliss, Dance, and Black Silk--in part because these are the novels I happen to have at hand. A few introductory words about the former two: one thing I love about Bliss and Dance is that they feature a historical setting that doesn't often make its way into romance. I adore unusual historicals, especially those in which the background feels like an organic part of the story rather than token exoticism. While France in the first decades of the twentieth century doesn't seem particularly radical at first blush--it's still Europe, after all--it's definitely an underutilized setting in Historicals. But Ivory doesn't merely transplant generic characters and issues into an unusual landscape. It's paramount to both Bliss and Dance that plot and character derive from the unique confluence of culture, technology, and history specific to France in the early twentieth century. Freud, Marx, the Lumière brothers, modernist sculpture and painting, feminism, economics, law--all these features of the cultural landscape become a part of Ivory's worldbuilding without ever overwhelming us with detail. When they enter the story directly, these discourses of ideas are never impersonal fireworks displays of erudition, given to us in a cold, impersonal narrative voice. Instead, they are pressing issues for the characters themselves as they work out their relationships to each other and to the world...

To be continued.  


  1. Ah...your #1 Cuevas/Ivory is my #1 as well.

    I'd then rank the rest:

    2. Beast
    3. Untie My Heart
    4. Black Silk
    5. Sleeping Beauty
    6. The Indiscretion
    7. The Proposition
    8. Angel in a Red Dress (though there are so many seeds of what Ivory wrote in her later books sown throughout the prose)

    And Oh là là!--to borrow a phrase comment in her French-set historicals: sophisticated is the exact word I use to describe her books and her writing.

    There is a very Gallic frankness to Ivory. For example, when she writes a courtesan heroine like Coco, it isn't to make a grand statement against virgin heroines, or to write a "hooker with a heart of gold." This verve is a bit watered down in The Proposition and The Indiscretion, and I feel the overwhelming "Englishness" of the characters, the conflict, the theme, and the setting were the culprits. As a result, when reading her books, I find England to be an "unusual setting," not France.

    The best part about Ivory is that I never feel I'm reading her. There are a lot of philosophies, ideals, and ideas woven into the prose, but they come across as extensions of the characters and the setting. As you said so wonderfully: "they are pressing issues for the characters themselves as they work out their relationships to each other and to the world..."

    I stopped trying to be Judith Ivory a long time ago because frankly, lol, she's a much better writer than I am and possibly ever will be. Mostly, I don't want to be a carbon copy that makes readers think of someone else. I want to bring my own level of sophistication and frankness, and allow my characters to speak about technological, philosophical, artistic, and political advances in their own words. I'm also arrogant enough to want my books to lead the pack, instead of classified as "Ivory/Gaffney/Kinsale/Chase/etc, the Second Generation" (a distinction I'd be honored and flattered to receive, but still, those ladies built their reputations without comparisons to previous generations of romance writers [much like Julia Quinn and Georgette Heyer cast long shadows over Regency romances]).

    Now that my long comment is over, I can't wait for Part Deux!

  2. Eek! I can't believe I forgot to rank Bliss! Shove that between Untie My Heart and Black Silk.

  3. You're definitely right about Ivory's England reading like no one else's...

    The great thing about sophistication is that it comes in so many flavors. That is, I don't think one has to slavishly imitate Ivory/Gaffney/Kinsale/Chase to come by it. I must confess I'm brimming with curiosity about your manuscript(s)!

  4. " There's something very dangerous and wonderful about a book that pays such an extravagant compliment to your intelligence."

    This, this, this. The experience of reading her books is intoxicating and...gratifying. In future, whenever I have to explain her appeal, I'm going to recall this line. Can't wait to read your future posts on her books!

  5. ...and I can't wait to read more Meredith Duran books, which are also a fine compliment to one's intelligence!

  6. I think it was Sherry Thomas who put me on to Ivory first, and I send psychic waves of readerly thanks in her general direction pretty much constantly as a result. My list of favorites is constantly in flux (the only stable thing about it is that Angel in a Red Dress is firmly at the bottom - it's very flawed, and the only one I ever actively disliked), but right now it looks something like this:

    1) Black Silk (for admiration, but not for rereadability - I've never been able to bring myself to revisit this one)
    2) Bliss
    3) The Proposition
    4) Dance
    5) Sleeping Beauty
    6) The Indiscretion
    7) Beast
    8) Untie my Heart
    9) Angel in a Red Dress

    I can't wait to read your further thoughts on Ivory, who is one of my favorite authors. In fact, this may call for a giant rereading campaign. And a subscription to your marvelous blog!

  7. The number one writer on my list of Authors is Diana Gabaldon, her Outlander series is outstanding.