The Bewildered Bride
A lot of elements go into a book, and some of the hardest books to review are ones where one element is terrific and the rest are borderline gibberish. That’s The Bewildered Bride, which has an exceptional rendition of a heroine with a sight disability and trauma-induced panic/anxiety, but plot that doesn’t make a dime’s worth of sense.
Wealthy black textile heiress Ruth Croome eloped with her beloved Adam Wilky, who is light-skinned but also part black (his mother was an enslaved woman who, like the historical Phillis Wheatley, was freed after demonstrating a gift for poetry). Adam never told Ruth that his real name was C. A. Wilkinson, for… reasons? But a brutal physical assault by his nefarious embezzling relatives on the way back from Gretna Green leaves Ruth and Adam convinced that the other is dead. Adam was impressed into the Navy rather than killed, also for … reasons? (The best I can figure is that he threatened the attackers with divine retribution and the death penalty for murdering a peer’s heir?) Ruth returned home to her family pregnant and with no proof of her marriage. (Adam tore the marriage certificate in half and gave them each a half, for… reasons?) Consequently, everyone believes that Ruth lied about her marriage and her son is illegitimate Apparently nobody met Adam during the six months he and Ruth courted, or thought to go to Gretna Green to meet the officiant, also for… reasons?
Four years later, Adam returns – his father having secured his release (although readers are not told how) – and is a now a baron. When he meets Ruth again, he pretends to be Adam’s cousin instead of Adam for … reasons? (I seriously read this part three times. It seems he thinks Ruth might have a nervous fit if he tells her the truth?) His return verifies Ruth’s story, and he begins a new courtship of her under his new identity for… reasons?
You can see the problem here.
The standout in this otherwise nonsensical book is the heroine. Ruth has suffered physical and sexual violence (nothing in this book is graphic or on-the-page, which made it more affecting to me) and is also losing her vision, I believe because of the head injuries suffered in the attack. The sight issue is detailed, as the servants show disrespect by moving things, and the spectacles of the time period are intermittently effective at best.
Four years after the attack, Ruth has gone from someone characterized as the wild sister, someone who would impulsively elope, to a woman whose agoraphobia keeps her in the house for months at a time. She is subjected to constant barbed slights by her family and their social circle, which further crushes her confidence in her judgement, and even in her belief that she and Adam were in love. Ruth and her struggles are so raw and honest. The arrival of Adam is not a magic cure for Ruth’s panic attacks or her self-doubt, but rather part of a process. I liked how she watched her family react to Adam’s revelation that Ruth has been truthful all along, although personally I’d have been a lot more bitter than she is had I been in her shoes. One other problem is the trajectory of Ruth’s issues. In the prologue, when Adam leaves his new bride to call the carriage, Ruth has a panic attack. It’s so inconsistent with the woman we are told boldly met Adam at the docks and eloped with him that it just reads like a character whose anxiety started earlier in a different draft and the author then forgot to delete the scene.
I enjoyed the depiction of black life in the Regency. There is the Croomes’ small circle of six or ten affluent black families. There is the underworld of ‘exotic’ brothels (the author uses historical terms.) There is the trans-national mobility of black communities – a woman from Jamaica, Adam’s mother from America. In setting failure, nobody notices or worries that if Adam marries Ruth over again as Lord Wycliff, their son will lose the title to a younger brother. This, from characters who overthink for entire chapters, pointlessly rehashing decisions and choices for pages of boggy inertia.
I want Vanessa Riley to land a tough-love editor, because I want to read a character as good as Ruth Croome in a book that lives up to her. As it stands, I can recommend this book to someone who wants to read about a survivor, but not to someone looking for much else.
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