Bliss - Judy Cuevas, Judith Ivory Bliss by Judy Cuevas
"Words thrill me. I collect them. Some I save and fondle, just
waiting for that day when I will need just this specific word to
get a point across." (Judith Ivory/Judy Cuevas interview
with Margaret Fraser "Florida Romance Writers newsletter 1996.)

"Bliss" was written in 1995 by Judy Cuevas (later Judith Ivory), her second novel. I first read my first Judith Ivory book in 2009 so I was VERY late to this party, but it only took one book for me to realize that this author had something very special in the way she puts words together. And, really, that's what a book is - just words strung together to make an image, express an idea, get a point across. While most anyone can do this, only a few writers can do it in such a way that the story lingers long past the final page, the last word, that last image. Even more significant, most of the authors who can do this cannot do this consistently, hitting that magic spot dead center sometimes but missing the mark at other times. However, that's why Judith Ivory/Judy Cuevas books are beyond special. Every single one of them is unique, just simply unforgettable. It's understandable that, indeed, "words do thrill" her and, in turn, thrill the lucky reader who opens up one of these gems.

What's so special about "Bliss"? Well, how many books have you read that were set in France? At a ramshackle chateau? In the Normandy countryside? In 1903? Not many, I'd wager. I know from reading blogs and review sites that there are lots of readers, like me, who wonder why most historicals today are set in jolly old England and why there aren't more diverse settings. The chateau in "Bliss" is not just a backdrop for Hannah Van Evan, Nardi de Saint Vallier, and the other characters. It is almost as much a character, albeit an ethereal magical one, as the de Saint Valliers, Amelia Besom, and Nardi's bodyguards. The chateau and its treasures are perhaps the only things Sebastien holds dear - more dear than his wife, his children, perhaps even more than loves his brother, Nardi. Because it is the reclamation of the chateau that motivates all of Sebastien's actions in "Bliss". Sebastien's single-minded pursuit of having the chateau back where it belongs - under the control of the de Saint Vallier family in general and his control specifically - is comparable to a man in pursuit of a woman as lover, mistress, or wife. He will stop at nothing to ensure he meets this goal. It is his raison d'être.

Hannah's first awe-struck glimpse of the chateau adds to the feeling of the chateau's presence as more than just a building.

"The road turned again, narrowing, the boughs of trees folding into each other overhead until the roadway became a kind of tunnel and the leaves above became a deep, vaulted ceiling. It was at the end of this, in an open square of sunlight, that Hannah caught her first glimpse of the Chateau d'Aubrignon.

It appeared in the opening of the trees, a composition of rosé-colored bricks interspersed with quoined geometric patterns of white eggstone, the whole perspective peering from behind a bramble garden that rose in front of the building. Hannah's preoccupied glance became full interest." (48)

The chateau is three stories high, with French windows, "a steep mansard roof" and "[t]here, ahead of her in the widening aperture, Hannah watched the amazing place expand, bend, turn." (49) Oh please let this be a real place and please let me be fortunate enough to see it some day. I almost understand Sebastien's obsession with the chateau just from this description alone.

But it's not just the setting and time that make "Bliss" stand out. There are characters, my friends, characters that feel as real and three-dimensional as you or I. Not. One. Single. Solitary. Cookie. Cutter. Character. Not one. And not one Duke, Earl, Marquess, or Baron can be found here either. Alleluia!

First, there's Hannah Van Evan. She's American, a former housekeeper to a socially elite family in Miami who cannot forget her poor beginnings. Her father was a pharmacist who grew and sold weed as a"miracle energy tonic". (220) As Nardi says, "Monsieur Van Evan had been quite a character and something of a charlatan." (221) Hannah's mother left her father when she was two, leaving only four sterling silver teaspoons which Hannah and her father used to fish for barracuda. Hannah is smart, very ambitious, obsessed with money and material things, and has a weakness for beautiful things and beautiful young men. Her predilection for young men is the reason she was known as "Miss Seven Minutes of Heaven" in Miami and could be seen almost as addicting as ether is for Nardi.

"She never seemed to know what hit her until she was bowling along
in a carriage with the young Mr. Stanton all over her. Or in a dark
hallway off a hotel restaurant wiggling up against Michael O'Hare.
Or on a beach with Aubrey Winfield. Or on a sailboat with James
Lee Vandermeer." (103)

Bernard de Saint Vallier, aka Nardi, was raised in wealth and privilege, was once the wunderkind of the art world whose sculptures were hailed as genius. To Nardi, if you love his art, you love HIM. He and his work were one and the same. His sculptures were how he placed value on himself. To calm him before a showing, he was given cocaine and morphine which didn't help at all. Finally, Sebastien, his brother, gave him ether which did help to calm him without causing him to bounce off the walls or just pass out. Ether made Nardi "pleasantly drunk and wore off quickly." (243)

When Nardi's sculptures began to receive nasty criticisms, Nardi was not able to handle it. So he began to drink ether to anesthetize himself to the pain of rejection. Soon that was all he did. He stopped creating art, he stopped caring about anything beyond his next bottle of ether. He explains to Hannah:

"Hannah, the private part-creation and how I feel about what I made-
and the public part-showing it, selling it-well, I have never been able
to put these comfortably together. (...) In my irrational moments,
though, this commerce makes of my nerves, eh, en pelote, eh,
comme, like a ball of wool, all tangled, tight, for fear prices, attention,
these external things mean something, that people like me-or don't.
My art, even old things I have done, I am afraid would still seem too
much a part of me. For my own safety, I don't let any of it matter any
longer." (239)

Nardi likes Hannah but doesn't know why, and she feels the same. However, when she attempts to "fix" Nardi, he angrily tells her:

"You cannot fix me. I am the devil himself when it comes to people
trying to. (...) I don't let people make me over. I fight them if they try.
And I fight without rules." (171)

How does Ms. Cuevas make what appears to be an ambitious would-be gold digger into a heroine I really loved? How does she make Nardi, a liar, a manipulator, a man so needy that any criticism sends him scurrying for a bottle or two or four of ether? She made them human with all of the good and the bad. Hannah is not just "Miss Seven Minutes of Heaven". She graduated first in her class at a local girls' school. She is determined, charming, smart, and genuinely cares about people. She is MORE than her sordid past. She took action to ensure that she did not trade love for social position, wealth, and a nice house. And Nardi is charming, sexy (after all he is French), and completely honest with himself regarding his flaws.

"He had some sterling qualities. (He was a wonderful liar, which made
for good stories. He was a sharp at cards, which made him fun to
beat when they could. And of course he could drink ether, in
quantities that would have anesthetized a battalion of legionnaires,
and still remain standing. He was always a good drinking companion,
he had a hollow leg.) But in all his years, he could never remember
liking himself better than he had for his youthful renown, his public
success at age twenty." (131)

Beyond an unusual time and setting, and characters who I felt could step out of the pages of this book, there's also the writing style of Ms. Cuevas all of which make "Bliss" my all-time favorite book. There are no euphemisms in the sex scenes, and there is no purple prose anywhere in this book. She writes crisply and clearly and beautifully. She doesn't write down to her readers. There are passages that are so funny I laughed out loud. For example, Hannah and Nardi's conversation about how superior all things French are.

"'Everything enduring is French. Everything good in life. Food, style,
art, poetry' he raised one brow - 'love.' He put on a clowny
smugness. 'We invented love, of course.'" (213)

Or Hannah's disgust with Sebastien's suggestion that she be very nice to Nardi. She is angry and thinks if

"she had been a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, she would
have grabbed him by his natty shirtfront as he passed, jerked him
over the door of his jaunty little caleche, and thrown him summarily
on the ground, where she would have pummeled him until he
couldn't stand up in his shiny-toed, hand-tooled oxfords." (207)

There are those that I read and re-read because I was just dumbstruck. Like the passage in which Nardi is relating how far he has fallen:

"Ah, Celebrity, my old darling, he thought. Nardi sighed. For he knew:
He had taken up with Intoxication and Notoriety, old bastard girls that
they were, strictly for the sake of their being half-sisters to the one
whom he had loved who had left him behind." (131)

The love story, the romance, between Hannah and Nardi is one of the best I have ever read. They become friends before jumping into bed. Nardi's fascination with Hannah was funny, sexy, and riveting. The epilogue is short but poignant as it is a letter to Hannah from Nardi while he is completing work in Italy. I know that they are happy and together. I know that Nardi is sculpting again and receiving some acclaim. More importantly, the epilogue, though very short, communicates how living happily ever after is an ongoing process. He still struggles with his need for praise, and I'm sure his "Untouched Quart" is nearby to remind him of how easy it is to just not feel, but he and Hannah are working together to ensure they are happy. I believe in this HEA.

I read "Bliss" once, and immediately re-read it and then a third time. Each time I read it, I still felt the same wonderful feeling from the first reading. "Bliss" worked for me on all levels. It is beyond sad that Ms. Cuevas/Ms. Ivory is no longer writing. This, this is the way historical romances should be written, and no one does it better.