Desert Isle Keeper
Tempting the Bride
There is a certain formula for a Sherry Thomas novel that involves one part exquisitely beautiful prose, one part heartwrenching emotion, and one part crazy Old Skool tropes revisited. I am not quite sure of the ratios involved, but, for me, this formula has always resulted in a profoundly beautiful romance that I absolutely adored. Still, I was trepidatious when I first read that Thomas’s Tempting the Bride would feature one of the most out-there Old Skool tropes, the amnesia plot. Plenty of these tropes defy common sense, but the amnesia plot nearly always defies medical science. And yet, Thomas passes with flying colors, again creating a story that is truly a joy to read.
Helena Fitzhugh, our heroine, makes me think of that song by the band Cake, Short Skirt/Long Jacket. She has a mind like a diamond, and she probably would use a machete to cut through red tape. It’s 1896, and Helena is a woman with an Oxford education who heads her own successful publishing firm. She knows what she wants, and she goes after it, societal expectations be damned. Our hero, David Hillsborough, Viscount Hastings, does not go after what (or, rather, whom) he wants. As book-loving as Helena, he presents a dissolute, uncaring face to society. While his friends and his young illegitimate daughter realize what an earnest, trustworthy person he is, he has trouble being that person around Helena.
Tempting the Bride is the third book in the Fitzhugh Trilogy, following stories respectively about Helena’s older sister and Helena’s twin brother, who also happens to be Hastings’ best friend. As such, Helena and Hastings’ story has been set up already, for those who have read the previous two novels. For those who have not (and also the rest of us), there is a prologue from Hastings’ POV recounting the prior information presented – Hastings has been in love with Helena since they were fourteen. Helena is in love, and conducting an affair with, an unhappily married man named Andrew Martin. Oh, and because they were fourteen when they met, Hastings got off to the worst possible start with Helena. Yes, he has loved her for the past dozen years, but he has spent those years hiding his love behind a series of cruel mocks and vulgar suggestions. Somewhat understandable, when he was an adolescent, but as the novel opens, this behavior is still going on, and he is almost twenty-seven. Shockingly enough, Helena rather despises her brother’s asshole friend who alternates between insulting her and propositioning her. And Hastings is well aware of this, but too scared to stop. He can’t have her love, because he is too proud and too frightened of rejection to ask for it, so he’d rather have her hate than her indifference.
Into this fine kettle of fish marches a straightforward plot. Hastings interrupts Helena and Martin’s affair just as it is beginning. Her family separates the forbidden lovers, but an opportunity for them to meet eventually arises. Helena and Martin take it, not realizing that their reunion has been set up by his wife’s family, who want to catch Martin red-handed in adultery. Hastings figures the deal out just in time, and races to save Helena. He does so, but only by convincing Martin’s family that Hastings and Helena have eloped. From the very beginning, Hastings has warned Helena that, should her affair be discovered, the married Martin will not be able to repair her reputation, and Hastings will be forced to marry her. This seems all set to happen, to Helena’s resigned misery – until the next day, when Helena is kicked in the head by a horse, while chasing after Martin.
When our heroine regains consciousness, after a brief coma that her family fears she will never wake from, she can’t remember anything autobiographical past the earliest part of her fourteenth year. Her sibling’s spouses are strangers to her, and so is Hastings, who tells her that the world knows them as husband and wife. It is an absolutely terrifying situation for everyone involved, for varied reasons, and most of all for Helena. Missing almost half of her life, she is for the first time uncertain of herself. She can’t remember attending university. She doesn’t know if her siblings – or she herself – have children. And her mainstay in this emotional horror is Hastings, this unknown man who obviously loves her, and for whom Helena is quickly able to develop affection. But she’s a clever woman, and it doesn’t take long for her to realize that while everyone else rejoices, as Helena’s memories return in fits and starts, Hastings seems to wish that she wouldn’t remember him. Inevitably, she will recall both Hastings and Martin, and the recovery of her memory intertwines with her falling in love. Once or twice, this can make Helena seems a wee bit capricious – she says one thing, remembers more of her life, and then says something else. Still, this highlights the very distressing situation in which she finds herself, unable to rely upon what she feels, because she doesn’t know if how she feels today makes any sense for the woman she has become in the years she no longer remembers.
Thomas has described thinking of the Fitzhugh Trilogy books as respectively the appetizer book, the main-course book, and the dessert book. On a certain level, this does make sense. Ravishing the Heiress, the middle novel, is longer and heartier than either of the others, and it delves into even darker, more heartrending places. (It is also my favorite of the trilogy, for the record.) However, this meal analogy is somewhat misleading. If Tempting the Bride is a dessert, it is not a light, sweet confection of berries and cream. It has a great deal of substance, and it can stand on its own, apart from the other related novels – though I do think that they would be a more enjoyable experience, read together.
One of the themes that has been present throughout the trilogy is the idea of the maturation of love, how love is affected when a person in love grows up. Each book has a protagonist who fell in love at first sight somewhere in his or her teens (the hero of Beguiling the Beauty, the heroine of Ravishing the Heiress, and the hero of Tempting the Bride) with the person with whom he or she will eventually live HEA. To balance that out, the opposite protagonist of each novel also falls in love with someone in his or her teens… and that relationship doesn’t work out. There’s the deceased first husband of the heroine in Beguiling the Beauty, the long-lost and then refound girlfriend of the hero in Ravishing the Heiress, and finally Andrew Martin in Tempting the Bride.
Martin is gentle and honest, if also latently selfish. It is evident why Helena would fall in love with him, to begin with. It is also very obvious – to both the reader and every other character in the trilogy, excepting Helena and Martin themselves – that they would make a terrible couple. He has no spine, while she has spine enough for five. But what Helena wants is not someone to ride roughshod over, but a partner who will be her emotional and intellectual equal – something Martin is incapable of being. I don’t usually like love triangles. The thing about a romance novel is that the ending is already a given. The hero and heroine will triumph over all odds and get together, before the last page. There is never any doubt who will end up with whom, and the Other Man (or Woman) is frequently presented as so visibly rotten, it is hard to imagine why the heroine or hero thinks she or he is in love with this person. Thomas, to her credit, doesn’t do this. While Tony, Venetia’s emotionally abusive first husband in Beguiling the Beauty, is nothing more than a jerk and a cad, he is also already dead, by the time the novel begins. Isabella of Ravishing the Heiress and Martin of Tempting the Bride are nice, fully-realized characters. It makes sense that the hero or heroine would love them. What Thomas explores is whether this love can endure, over five or ten years. What is the difference between a lasting, HEA sort of love, and a love that was great for two teenagers, but that ultimately fades into some sort of nostalgia-flavored fondness?
I usually dislike the amnesia plot, and I cannot vouch as to the medical accuracy of the condition, as it is presented here – but it does seem much more accurate than the typical fictional cases of amnesia in any genre. More importantly, for me as a reader, Thomas deals with the emotional fallout of memory loss; amnesia is not merely a convenient way to make a beautiful woman into a mystery, it is a horrifying ordeal. Tempting the Bride is not perfect, but it comes pretty close.