In Total Surrender
When it comes to plot revelations, I have nothing against the slow reveal – far from it. I love gradual crumbs. I like the stories that keep me wondering. But there’s a limit to what I can take before I just wonder what the heck is going on, and Ms. Mallory’s latest definitely crosses the line.
Trying to figure out motivations and essential plot points was kind of like solving a math word problem, à la Grade 8 Math: List the Knowns, list the Unknowns, then solve accordingly. Except it didn’t really work that way. The Knowns are pretty straightforward:
- Hero, Andreas Merrick, is king of London’s underworld.
- Heroine, Phoebe Pace, belongs to a family that makes carriages.
- Phoebe’s looking for her missing brother, and arrives chez Merrick with a proposition.
- Andreas is broody, angry, and supposedly very ill tempered.
Which is more or less fine, except they’re paired with all the Unknowns:
- What does Andreas actually do, as oh-so-bad king of the underworld?
- And why is he so freaking angry all the time?
- Phoebe has a proposition. Fine. But why? And why does bad boy Andreas take it like Hello Kitty lying down?
- Who the hell is this Lord Garrett that everyone keeps mentioning but no one explains?
- Can someone please tell me what’s going through Phoebe’s head?
Normally, I’d take most of these questions in stride, and I’d just let the revelations unfold as I read. After all, if an author dumps everything on us in the first twenty pages, there’d be no story – or if there were it’d be absolute crap. But I had three issues with this method. First, I ended up being confused out of my mind. I had no idea what the hell was going on until the second half of the book, where we finally start to get some answers.
Second, the first 100 pages are slow. Slooooow. This is the direct cause of Problem #1, but it’s also related to Problem #3, namely, that the first 118 pages are all from Andreas’ point of view. Ms. Mallory decided to do a full-on third person limited narration that borders on first-person, and she does so with total rigidity. Short of a CAT scan, we’re exposed to everything that Andreas is thinking and feeling. On the plus side, this means that the reader isn’t subjected to paragraph upon paragraph of clunky dialogue alternating with exposition. But it also means that we don’t read anything that Andreas isn’t thinking. And Andreas may know everything about the Pace carriage-Lord Garrett-Merrick enterprise situation, but dude, I’m in the dark. Fill me in. Please.
I also suspect that the author is banking on Andreas’ appeal to see the reader through, and while there are moments of sharp dialogue and hero appeal, Andreas is a damn gloomy sod to listen to for pages on end. I hadn’t the foggiest why he was so attracted to Phoebe, and this played serious havoc on my belief in their compatibility. What do I see from his end? Someone who sweet talks hardened criminals and plies them with biscuits. And I don’t see things from her end for a while, so I don’t know what she’s thinking.
When Phoebe finally enters the picture, she balances the perspective and things get better, and the book finally – finally – picks up in the second half. Phoebe never becomes more than a moderately interesting heroine, but Andreas definitely becomes more appealing. And I found it relishing to read about a couple wholly unconnected to Almack’s and White’s. The quality of Ms. Mallory’s actual prose is never in question – at its best it is tight, evocative, and very beautiful. I’ve been reading her for years, and every book her writing gets tighter and tighter.
This time, though, I think Ms. Mallory took the tightness to an extreme. In Total Surrender became quite enjoyable in the second half, once I’d overcome the logy, cryptic first half, but I’m not sure I’d have stuck it out if I hadn’t been reading the book for review. If you haven’t read Anne Mallory before then I highly recommend Three Nights of Sin, For the Earls’ Pleasure, or Seven Secrets of Seduction. But I wouldn’t start here.