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Beast

Judith Ivory | 1997

Wrist-kissers: A love story
On Beast by Judith Ivory

By Morgan Lott


I don’t know what to say about Beast as a whole. It feels like three discreet romance novels in one. It is problematic and it oftentimes spins past itself. But it is the only romance novel I have revisited. But I have only revisited one scene. And it is this scene that I want to talk about. It is this scene that I would like to use to convince you to read Beast. Wrist-kissing at the Heroine’s family’s garden party.

The scene plays out like a little snowglobe of the whole genre itself. The hero longs for the heroine, the hero is thwarted until he earns the right to be with the heroine, sex. Except the sex here is not really sex.

Charles, our hero, arrives at a party hosted by Louise’s family, his in-laws, late. He goes on this Odyssian journey to his frigid, teen wife, intercepted by different figures who wish to prevent him from getting to Louise. A pack of students objectifying her body, an old flame, an old flame’s husband. When he finally locates Louise, goes over and talks to her, there is a break in the tension that the text has been building between our two characters (who, for myriad complexities, have not been physical).

What you need to know is, essentially, Charles negotiates the opportunity to kiss Louise’s wrist. He ends up taking full advantage of the opportunity with biting and licking and sucking and kissing in full view of the party. Both hero and heroine like it. It is cut short because of its public nature.

This scene pays off owing a lot to the strange nature of the character’s relationship with their bodies. A significantly longer piece on the nature of bodies and the function of bodies in this book deserves to be written. But allow me to iris in on this one particular moment, which creates this one particular point about the bodies.

We have two people who have never been given the opportunity to want or long for something tangible, physical. Perhaps they long to be seen as something more than their physical appearances, perhaps they long for love. But they’ve never been hungry. They have never been cold. They have never been abstinent on accident. Physical need is something with which they are each unaccustomed.

So when Charles sets upon Louise’s wrist it is a corporeal need being filled. Neither party was aware that they become more than infatuated, they had become comfortable, dependent on one another’s physical touch. Like reaching water in a desert, there is not space for consideration of other parties. He drinks and drinks and drinks.

What a thing. To be treated as truly be needed. To be treated like air after holding your breath or food after a famine. It is a dizzying, erotic scene that has nothing to do with the relationship between the characters - which is queasy - or the characters themselves - who are not likeable. It is a sex scene that forgets sex as a specificity, as an act. Even the exhibitionist positioning of the scene is (pretty much) entirely devoid of eroticism. It is the focus, the unbidden expression, the gushing out of need that is so appealing.

Beast is book that is somehow made more spectacular through its obvious flaws as a romance.

Hero and Heroine, as characters, understand their value in their world as something sexual. Which, truly, that is where the value of these romance characters But they are also creatures of ennui, especially romantic. Constantly desired the way that they both prefer. For Charles, without strings or complications. For Louise, much the same, an affection she can control. They are shaken from this state by a dearth of resources. They withhold that preferred desire from one another. And the act of affection, of desiring, becomes vividly recontextualized. And concentrated. Sex is reformed between these two characters in this scene.