Black Silk / Judith Ivory. 2002

Not long ago, Jessica mentioned on her blog that she was going to post a review of Judith Ivory’s Black Silk. A few commenters mentioned how they were looking forward to the review. I have to admit, that got me curious. I’d heard of this book, but couldn’t remember where or what. So I looked it up at AAR and found quite a compelling DIK review of the book by Sherry Thomas. Naturally, I had to see for myself what all of the fuss was about, so I reserved Black Silk from the library and finished it up this week.

Oh my. There’s no way I can do this book justice.

If you love words, if you love rich, evocative prose that delivers you into another time and place, this book is for you. It is not meant to be read quickly, but slowly and thoroughly. That means sticking through the first part of the book with its long descriptive passages. There's not much action at first, but the setup is used so effectively to reveal the personalities and characters of the protagonists, Graham Wessit and his cousin-by-marriage, Submit Channing-Downes.

That means if you crave action, this book is not for you. It is a purely character-driven book. Submit had had a happy marriage with Henry Channing-Downes, a man some 30 or 40 years her senior. She was 16 when she married him and is nearing 30 now. Graham had been Henry’s ward and Henry and Graham had had nothing but contempt for one another. Submit and Graham have polar opposite opinions of Henry but are brought together because of an unusual bequest in Henry’s will. Submit is studious, sober, and intent on fulfilling Henry's wishes by delivering the bequest. Graham is fun-loving, flighty, and while intent on having no part of that bequest, he does find himself intrigued by Submit. As a widow, Submit is in mourning, dressed in black (hence the name of the book), while Graham wears brightly colored vests, decorated with multiple watches and chains, as well as multiple rings on his fingers. Ivory spends a lot of time using their wardrobes as metaphors for their personalities. It was brilliantly done.

If you love witty, sharp dialogue, this book is for you. Graham and Submit are in turn challenged and frustrated by one another. They disagree on many things and underestimate on another. It makes for some interesting conversation when they are together.

If you want your romance to take a traditional course where boy meets girl and immediately forsakes all others, this book is not for you. Throughout at least 3/4 of the book, Graham keeps a mistress and she is a central character to the story. While Graham is becoming more and more intrigued by and attracted to Submit, he is still involved with his mistress. This violates one of those unwritten taboos in the genre, which for me made the book all the more interesting because it did so. (That taboo being that once the hero meets the heroine he stays out of any other woman's bed.)

I loved how Graham is revealed to be much more serious and responsible than he appears to be in the beginning. And when Submit is given a taste of independence and freedom she embraces the idea that she--a woman in a male-dominated society--can have a much richer life than she had imagined. She discovers she can earn her own way and she is excited by the thought.

But that does bring me to my one complaint. I won’t be specific for fear of spoilers. At the very end of the book, just before she and Graham get together, Submit makes a choice that seemed so very out of character, especially since she had embraced her independence. Why would she make such a choice? Suddenly she is running away to America, and that runs counter to all that had come before. It struck me as the author adding conflict for the sake of conflict.

Fortunately, and naturally, all’s well that ends well. And I found it an enchanting journey. Black Silk was my first Ivory. I must read more. Meanwhile, I highly recommend this one and can’t wait to see some discussion about it over at Jessica’s, or maybe over here where Lusty Reader read it, but did NOT like it. I'm hoping we'll hear why.


  1. Well, I'm the one that recommended it to Lusty because I have always loved this book and I'm glad you liked it as well. The spoiler-I know it seemed out of character or maybe she was reverting back to comfort. But you have to admit Grahams closing scene and her running to the door was great. Grahams statement to Gerald,-"You're still here!" I loved it. I want to write like Ms. Ivory when I grow up!

  2. Oh absolutely--when she goes running after him and he's there waiting because he *knew* she'd do that--it was perfect. Definitely a great ending.

  3. Such a great review. I find it impossible to write one myself! I am now halfway into the Proposition and I love it!

  4. Thank you! And even if you don't write a review I'm SO glad your mention of it prompted me to read it. I must now go seek out Proposition!

  5. What about Angel in Red. I liked that one just as much as Black Silk. Try that one.

  6. my favorite part of our reviews is we mention so many similar dislikes or plot points that stood out to us, but our reactions were so different to them! something that pushes my button may totally work for someone else. i love it! and i am definitely trying Angel in the Red Dress too!

  7. OK! I now have both Angel in a Red Dress and Proposition reserved at the library. I'm looking forward to reading them.

  8. Cool I'm going to re-read it too!

  9. Jessica's holding a book talk on Black Silk on Dec. 6 at So, Christina, if you get the chance to re-read it, be sure to check out the book talk.

  10. I just found this sight, and loved reading the review of and comments on Black Silk. If you check the web, there are several ambivalent reviews re Black Silk, mainly because of Judith Ivory's divergence from the typical Romance formula and because of the complexity of the language. I am so happy to see that you "got" Ivory, Phyl, as she writes like no one else I have ever read. I find it impossible to describe her writing, as to say that it is incredibly beautiful just does not do it justice. Let's just say that if Judith Ivory wrote the phone book, I would buy it and read it over and over.
    Romance as a genre has a bad rap, partly deserved when one looks at the many throw-away romance novels that get published, but after reading Ivory's works, I find myself viewing the genre with a whole new respect. (I should insert here that I love reading romance.) Ivory writes so well and according to such a high standard that her works should be classified both as Romance and as Literature with a capital "L". The only negative to reading Ivory is that she raises the bar so high that it is hard to read most anything else.

  11. JayGirl, I'm so glad you found my review and stopped to comment. Thanks for your kind words, too. I totally agree that romance gets a bad rap because it seems formulaic to people who don't read the genre. Truth is, in the hands of great writers like Ivory, boundaries are pushed and tropes are turned upside down, while still delivering an emotionally satisfying story. It is so fun to discover writers who can do that. I still have Angel in a Red Dress to read.


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