I was sorting through my daughter’s bookshelves a few weeks ago, putting together her school and university text books to find a new home for them, when I came across a copy of Beauty by Susan Wilson.
My daughter had clearly bought it in a charity shop to read on the train and had left it behind after one of her visits.
The cover, a yellow rose on a red background, did not inspire. And although it was published in 1996, I had never heard of the book or the author, but the “A Modern Day Beauty & the Beast” strap line caught my eye and I put it to one side and, finally picked it up and started to read it.
Some books draw you in from the first line and this is one of those books. The lovely artist, Alix Miller, receives a commission to paint the portrait of Lee Crompton, a member of a wealthy New England family. It is a tradition that has gone back through generations; his family have always commissioned her family to paint their portraits. This, however, is a portrait that will never be seen. The sitter suffers from a genetic disfiguring illness and lives as a recluse.
“I tripped over a buried root and pitched headlong down the steep slope. Stunned, I lay painting and didn’t hear anyone approach until a gloved hand reached down to me... I took the proffered hand and was pulled to my feet to look into the most grotesque face I had ever seen...”
As Alix begins work, however, she finds herself seeing beneath her subject’s face and the friendship develops, almost imperceptibly, into a magnetic sexual attraction.
Susan Wilson writes a tender and beguiling love story, bringing the Beauty and the Beast story credibly to life -- although it's the Beast who has to find his own internal beauty in this story since there is no possibility of transformation -- and her writing is wonderful.
A word of warning. If you’re lucky enough to find a copy, keep the tissues handy.