The Ruin of Evangeline Jones
In her biography, Julia Bennet says she writes historical romance with passion, intrigue, dark humor and the occasional animal sidekick. She does! The Ruin of Evangeline Jones has passion and intrigue in spades. Not so much the humor, but we do get a memorable cat. I like all of these things, and I hoped to love them in this book. Unfortunately, what starts out as a compelling thriller-esque historical romance with dark undercurrents, gives way to one too many plot conveniences and characters behaving contrary to their early characterizations. I kept hoping the author would rediscover the tension and foreboding that marked the terrific first half, but alas, she didn’t. The Ruin of Evangeline Jones is sexy and suspenseful and entertaining. But a disappointing second half left this reader wishing for more.
Alex Stanton, Duke of Harcastle, is what one would call a disinterested duke. Six months earlier, he inherited the dukedom from a father who put his half-sister in an insane asylum to keep her a secret (The Madness of Miss Grey), and treated him like he was little better than a piece of rubbish. After spending several years drinking away his misery, Alex has recovered from his addiction and has turned his passion for drink towards a new pursuit: exposing charlatans and frauds who prey on innocent victims. He’s handed the task of sorting out the Harcastle estate to the much more capable Jude Ellis, his cousin many times removed. They tolerate each other – one could even call them friends – but essentially they’re strangers.
When the story begins, Jude has made Alex aware that the estate is deeply in debt, and although he has suggested several possible ways to turn things around, Alex can barely focus on the problem or its possible solutions – he’s too fixated on spiritualist and medium Evangeline Jones. After a recent experience with Ms. Jones left him shaken to his core, he’s determined to figure out her tricks. His early investigations into her origins turn up a photo of a scantily clad woman named Sally Harper, a dead ringer for Evangeline, and since then he’s struggled to keep his mind on anything but her. He keeps the photo on him at all times, and the image is never far from his thoughts.
Evie prides herself on her skill as a spiritualist and medium. After she was ‘rescued,’ from a brothel as a young girl (shortly before she would have had to begin whoring), she spent the intervening years honing and learning her craft, mastering her role as the fastidious and talented mesmerist Evangeline Jones. She owes everything to the Captain, the man who plucked her out of the brothel and gave her a chance at something better, and although she chafes under his control, she’s grateful to him, too. And while her circumstances may be a source of derision to the haughty and condescending Duke of Harcastle, she’s not about to lose everything because he has nothing better to do than ruin her life. He might have fled in fear from her séance, but she knows he’ll be back.
She’s right. Before long, Alex surprises Evie at home – but his visit doesn’t go the way either of them expect. After an intense confrontation – he accusing her of being a fraud who dupes innocent victims; Evie accusing him of being out of touch with the struggles of those outside his wealthy, aristocratic bubble – they come to an agreement.
He has one week to prove she’s a fake. If he fails, he has to abandon all further attempts. If he succeeds, she’ll not only retire but make a public statement explaining all her tricks.
He also offers her the promise of money and opportunity to get free of the Captain – and Evie can’t resist saying yes, even as she worries about the dangerous attraction that sparks between her and Hardcastle every time they meet.
From the opening sequence wherein Evangeline and Hardcastle are pitted as enemies fighting the strong frisson of attraction they feel everytime they’re near each other, to the moment they strike their devil’s bargain, I was wholly on board with this love/hate, enemies-to-lovers premise. He’s a lecherous, intoxicated moth to Evie’s flame; she’s an enchantress who doesn’t understand or recognize the depth of Alex’s affection for EVERYTHING about her – her toughness, resilience, intelligence, beauty. It all works. The added layer of hidden menace lurking just off page whenever Captain makes one his sinister appearances adds a nice kick of foreboding to the story. But post-bargain… the novel loses its way.
Obviously, these two can only fight their attraction for so long. I liked the pseudo-sensual haze that descends on Alex and Evie whenever they’re close to each other, and the pace of their physical relationship, in which their scrambled thoughts are analogous to their frantic, wild sexual encounters. Neither can control how they feel or the depth of their longing for each other, despite the very real obstacles to any long term relationship between them, and it’s all reflected in the compromises they make once they strike their bargain. All of this works – until Alex starts behaving like he can’t make mature decisions because of his dick, and Evie softens so much that she loses all of the hard edges and cool-headed thinking that are her trademarks. There’s pining and whining (Alex is a DUKE folks! Cue the world’s tiniest violin), borderline silly cameos from Alex’s half-sister Helen and her husband, and all sorts of plot conveniences (especially the one that involves Helen) that negate the danger and thrill of the first half. By the time we reach the ending, and the deus-ex-machina that neatly ties up all our loose ends, I’d had enough.
Despite my very real problems with all the plot contrivances, Bennet shows a deft hand for building tension, mood, and ambiance, and her early characterization of the principal pair had me wholly invested in the story. I spent a good part of this novel trying and failing to figure out how they could possibly wind up together despite all the obstacles in their path. Sure, I was disappointed in the ending – and honestly, I predicted a much different resolution – but I’m all in with the Harcastle family. I’ll definitely go back and read Helen’s horrific backstory (and Will seems like a beta dreamboat), and Bennet drops some tantalizing hints about Jude, who clearly has secrets of his own. I’ll be keeping my eye out for his book. Although the author misses out on a DIK for The Ruin of Evangeline Jones, I’m optimistic her best (Jude’s story?) is just around the corner.
The Ruin of Evangeline Jones is a promising follow-up to The Madness of Miss Grey, Bennet’s début. I recommend it with reservations.