There are so many reviews of this book available on the internet, I'm not quite sure what I can add to the mix, but here we go.
Beast is centered around a hero who is convinced that he is hideously deformed. He has a limp, arthritis, and a scar on his face which has taken his eye. As in the fairy tale, the Beast is paired with a beautiful maiden who, by virtue of her beauty, the hero decides can never love him for what he is.
Lulu (Louise) Vandermeer is an American heiress on board an ocean liner to meet her parent's choice of husband in France. Charles d'Harcourt (the disfigured object her parent's attentions) is also onboard. One evening he comes across her flirting with a crewmember. He overhears her complain about his humpback and scarred face and decides to "teach her a lesson" by seducing her under an assumed persona and then dumping her. (Note--has this ploy ever worked, ever, in any circumstances? In a romance novel? In a non-romance novel? In real life? Is this a common plan for revenge?)
So Charles, who by the by has no humpback, takes on the chore of seducing Louise--in the dark. He allows her to think that he is an Arab sheik, and he demands complete secrecy and darkness. (Her parents are on board, as is Charles' mistress, which only add to the need for secrecy.) She falls for him--hard.
When the ship docks, Charles disappears, and Louise is introduced to Charles, her fiance. And now we have to deal with the reveal. When will Lulu (as French Charles now calls her) figure out that Charles is Charles?
Lulu, mourning for Arabic Charles, demonstrates her ability to dominate a situation using her beauty. She can be cutting or aloof in public, and privately she asks her husband not to touch her until she allows it. Charles knows that she will punish him when she ultimately discovers his trickery, so keeps figuring out new excuses not to tell her. But now he wants to seduce her all over again, and she is still wrapped up in her love for Arabic Charles.
The sex scenes are stirring, and Judith Ivory handles a layered conversation with double meanings and partial disclosures well. There also is a subtext regarding ambergris. Charles is a perfumer and wishes to not only cultivate floral oils, but also to develop his own perfume including ambergris.
What I come away with from this book is that I was most fond of Arabic Charles and French Lulu. Playing the Arab, Charles is poetic, honest, loving, sometimes cruel, but nonetheless an intriguing fellow. In France, Charles, unless he is having sex with Louise, falls victim to his own pride. He's inarticulate and rageful. He's vain and somehow he's so filled with pride that he loses his attractiveness. Other than sexual prowess, I have a hard time figuring out what Louise sees in him--although she likes his lavender fields. On the ship Louise isn't very interesting--an object of desire but particularly mature. However, in France, Louise becomes an interesting character with her own issues to resolve. We see Louise using her beauty to isolate herself--she becomes the master of hauteur and indimidating grace. I rather like her for that.
I find myself thinking about Beast well after having finished it--which marks it for me as a favorite. But I can't decide if I liked a single person in it. (So much for the thesis that readers read romance to vicariously indulge in a relationship with the hero.) I can't even decide if I enjoyed the relationship, the courting, the conflict, or even the sex. (Good thing I don't grade these reviews; I be lost.)
I do know that I want to find an ambergris perfume.