The Stolen Bride
The Stolen Bride is the third book in Joyce’s deWarenne Family series, a family formed when Eleanor deWarenne’s father, an Irish earl, married Sean O’Neill’s mother, the widow of a prominent Irish landowner who was killed by the British. Together they blended a large family of siblings, but Elle has never felt just a sisterly affection for her stepbrother Sean. She has always adored him, followed him around like a puppy and, at age six, declared to all that she would marry him.
The O’Neill family estate was destroyed by the British. Sean, with Elle’s help, spent years lovingly restoring it. Now that his elder brother, a British naval captain who married and resigned his commission, has returned home, Sean finds himself restless, wanting to get away and see a bit of the world. A distraught 18-year-old Elle extracts a promise from him that he will return for her and gives him a decidedly non-sisterly kiss. Surprised, and confused, Sean takes his leave and promptly disappears.
Four years later, the family assumes he is dead and even Elle has decided that he isn’t coming back for her. So she now finds herself three days away from her wedding to Nice Guy Peter Sinclair, the heir to an English earldom. While she will always love Sean, she feels the need to get on with her life.
After spending the last two years in a Dublin prison on charges of treason for killing an English soldier during a riot, Sean has just escaped and is making his way to a ship bound for America with help from the Irish Patriot underground. Sean is now a shadow of his former self. He was essentially forgotten by the authorities and left to rot in darkness and isolation. Light gives him headaches, noises startle him, and his speech is halting and difficult. I love a tortured hero, so Sean immediately gained my sympathies and hope for future happiness.
Joyce does a very nice job of providing flashbacks, glimpses into Sean and Elle’s lives together as they grew up that show the longevity and depth of the relationship between the earnest boy and the tomboy hellion. I was convinced of their love for each other and ready to cheer their reunion.
When Sean is just a few miles from the family estate, and learns of Elle’s impending marriage, he is drawn to his former home almost against his will. The scene where he peers longingly through the window and watches the pre-wedding ball is just heartbreaking. He is both shocked and moved at the sight of Elle as a grown up, beautiful, desirable woman. He puts himself in her path the following morning as she’s out riding and the reunion is touching; Elle beside herself with joy that he is alive, and Sean longing to take his ease in Elle’s care, but, because he is so changed and damaged, afraid to do so. Elle immediately plans to leave with him – nothing else matters now that he is alive and she is not going to let him leave her again.
I enjoyed the book up until this point – a great, damaged hero, a friends-to-lovers plotline wrapped around a childhood-friends-reunited scenario – all things I enjoy, though I do admit to feeling a bit sorry for Nice Guy Peter, who genuinely adores Elle. But then things went downhill – slowly.
The Stolen Bride is 560 pages long, and is about 200 pages too long. Those flashbacks that I so enjoyed at the beginning began to pall as they piled up and up. The earlier flashbacks served their purpose admirably, but as they continued on and on, long after the background had been established, they just became annoying and a hindrance to the narrative.
The same scenes are repeated many times. Elle determines to discover what happened to Sean during his four missing years, even as they are on the run and being chased by British soldiers trying to recapture Sean. She picks and picks at him until he lets some horrifying fact slip, whereupon she says she’ll stop prodding while he walks out in anger. He returns and she picks and picks at him until he confesses something more and then walks out. Then he returns and she picks and picks… Oy! Enough, already! There are other scenes similarly repeated, but this was the most aggravating one.
I also had a difficult time keeping a straight face while reading what my AAR colleague Anne Marble calls Said Bookisms. No one simply “says” anything. She cried. He sighed. She begged. He hesitated. She pouted. He whispered. All on one page. It is very rare to have any bit of dialogue go by unfettered by a modifier. It was irritating at first, but then became funny and I found myself making little bets about how many dialogue tags there would be in this conversation.
There is, at its core, a very good story here with compelling characters. Unfortunately, it is buried beneath dense layers of flashbacks, banal repetition, and uneven writing. I would have given a shorter, more tightly written version of The Stolen Bride a grade of B. However, this is not that book.