To Kiss a Thief
Susanna Craig’s debut novel, To Kiss a Thief, is the first in a new series. Her writing is strong and the story entertains – though it’s a tad too predictable, and relies on two of my least favorite romantic tropes – the Big Misunderstanding and the ‘good, but really bad’ relative – before it concludes. I wish the author had spent a bit more time developing her characters before introducing the Big Mis, mostly because I struggled to like two protagonists with such poor decision-making skills and cavalier attitudes toward the bonds of marriage.
The book opens in a prologue wherein we’re dropped into the very confused PoV of newlywed Sarah Sutliffe née Pevensey. It’s the night of her nuptial ball, a mere two weeks after she wed St. John Sutliffe, Viscount Fairfax. For a reason Sarah can’t recall, she’s alone in the library on another man’s lap, her dress is in disarray and she’s crying. As she frantically tries to disentangle herself, the door bursts open, and among the friends and family at the door is her husband. She scrambles to explain herself and fix her dress, but he leaves in disgust. Meanwhile, her erstwhile partner manages to slip away and her in-laws notice she’s no longer wearing the priceless sapphire necklace (a Sutliffe family heirloom) she was gifted at the start of evening.
Later in her room, Sarah struggles to piece together the events of the night, but for some reason her memory is fuzzy. One of the only things she recollects with any clarity is a conversation she overheard between St. John and the Honorable Miss Eliza Harrington (a close friend of his) wherein St. John admitted he never loved Sarah, and he never would. His words confirmed her worst fears – he only married her for her dowry. Sarah fled the scene, grabbed a glass of wine and then escaped to the library – only to find herself in a compromising position with Captain Brice.
To make a bad situation even worse, Sarah’s protestations of innocence regarding the disappearance of the necklace are not believed. Her mother-in-law, Lady Estley, points out how terrible the repercussions of a scandal on her family will be and suggests that perhaps Sarah, like Captain Brice, should just slip away. As a gesture of goodwill, she offers Sarah a hired coach, packs her a bag and recommends the perfect destination (Devonshire). A devastated and heartbroken Sarah agrees to the plan, and sets off.
When the story resumes, St. John has just returned from three years abroad in the West Indies (he left shortly after the ball and a duel with Captain Brice that he barely survived), Sarah is presumed dead, and the case of the missing necklace has never been solved. St. John is retrieving notepaper for Lady Estley from her desk when he discovers the torn edge of a slip of paper with the words ‘Memorandum. Midsumr. £500—S.’ He asks her if it’s a record of payment for something, and flustered, she tries to divert his attention. Something about her behaviour and the letter ‘S’ on the note, convinces him the payment is to Sarah and he immediately demands to know where she is.
From the start, Ms. Craig makes it clear Sarah isn’t a thief and though she was found in a compromising position, the only man she’s ever loved or been intimate with is her husband. Three years later she’s managed to survive – and thrive – as Sarah Fairfax in the small fishing village of Haverhythe. She lives modestly and has convinced the town she is a widow who lost her husband at sea. St. John’s arrival is unwelcome and threatens her reputation and precarious existence. More importantly, it leaves her no time to hide her greatest secret. When they sit down to talk, she barely responds to his accusations (why, Sarah, why?!). But when he threatens to return her to London to face justice, Sarah tells him she has no intention of leaving Haverhythe. St. John decides to give in to her demand to stay (temporarily) and plots to stay in town and conduct his own investigation. Just before he leaves, a plot twist reveals the secret Sarah has kept, and gives St. John yet another reason to mistrust her.
The sins of the past cast a long shadow, and unfortunately, St. John and Sarah persist in dealing with each other based on mistaken assumptions about that past. Neither is willing or able to see beyond those perceived sins. Spending time in close proximity to one another opens their eyes to the truth of the person they married. It’s obvious that the hopeful, loving feelings Sarah nurtured for St. John at the time of her wedding haven’t diminished, and in fact, after seeing him interact with the villagers, her attraction to him is stronger than ever. We learn that St. John was falling for Sarah before the nuptial ball, only for the events of that night to confirm his belief that love was a fool’s emotion. Only after he spends his days with Sarah is he convinced she didn’t steal the necklace; he finds himself attracted to this confident, independent woman and more confused than ever about the events that unfolded that terrible night three years before. St. John and Sarah suffer through more misunderstandings until the truth about the scene in the library is finally revealed. It’s a sweet and romantic moment when they confess their love for each other – but slightly overshadowed by a scene with the villainess that precedes it. Yes, the big reveal casts a few characters as villains – and the resolution is a bit too convoluted and contrived.
From the start, I struggled to reconcile Sarah’s impulsive decision to disappear and St. John’s escape to the West Indies as ‘acceptable’ solutions to the debacle of the nuptial ball and their marriage. It’s hard to believe a couple so quick to assume the worst is truly destined to be together, and I wish Ms. Craig had given us more backstory about St. John and Sarah before they wed. Why Sarah would ever believe she could fall in love with St. John when he treated her like dirt from the moment they were engaged, or how St. John might love Sarah when he admitted marrying her for her money and never spent any time with her – are seemingly irrelevant plot points. If Ms. Craig wants us to believe their marriage and reconciliation are destined – I need to have faith in them as a couple from the beginning. Unfortunately, I didn’t and I think it’s a significant missed opportunity.
In To Kiss a Thief, the villains aren’t very villainous (or skilled), the hero isn’t nearly as aloof as he should be, and the heroine is a bit lazy championing her own cause. Putting aside the lack of character development and the Big Misunderstanding, Ms. Craig’s writing shows promise. This is her first novel, so I am perhaps more willing to forgive her for those shortcomings and to give another of her books a try.