Book: The Bewildered Bride by Vanessa Riley (2019)
Reviewers: Bethany and Jeriann
Age/Genre: Historical/Regency Romance
Reading Accoutrements: Read this book somewhere peaceful and open, like in a garden next to a water fountain, to counter some of the claustrophobia. Don’t forget your sunscreen!
Content Notes: Racism, Classism, Violence, Rape, Kidnapping, Human Trafficking, PTSD
Jeriann: It was Bethany’s turn to pick the book for our co-review and it’s been long enough since I was subjected to a romance novel that I told her she could continue her current fascination with Regency Romance if she wanted. She sent me a bunch of blurbs, and we both decided The Bewildered Bride looked like a fun, if somewhat ridiculous, romp.
Ruth Croome, the daughter of a wealthy textile merchant in London, met Adam Wilky on the docks while visiting her father’s warehouse – where she roamed unchaperoned, against her parents’ better judgment. The two fell in love while meeting secretly over the course of six months and decided to elope to Gretna Green. We meet our characters on their return trip to London.
Adam Wilky is a man of secrets. Ruth has not met his family, but he has told her of some family drama, and the fact he fears his uncle will harm them if they return to London. Despite this, Ruth wants to introduce her new husband to her family and assure her parents she is safe. During the journey, they are attacked and separated, both under the impression that the other has been killed.
Fast forward four years: Ruth is living with her family as a widow and mother and is considering a marriage of convenience in order to get out of her parents’ house. She was hit over her head in the attack four years ago and is slowly losing her eyesight as a result. Another side effect of the attack is moments of overwhelming panic, especially when Ruth goes outside or is in large crowds. Her four-year-old son is adventurous and Ruth cannot keep up with him while her eyesight deteriorates rapidly and her PTSD affects her ability to go outdoors.
Before Ruth finalizes her planned engagement of convenience, she wants to legitimize her son. No one believes Ruth about the attack on her and Adam, as there is no proof of his existence. People believe he gave her a fake name, had his way with her, and abandoned her in a brothel. Her mother, in particular, has spent the last four years allowing her friends to torment Ruth about her “scandalous choices.” Out of the blue, Ruth receives some of her belongings from the carriage incident, giving her hope she can track down Adam’s family and find his part of the marriage registry, which he’d split between them in order to keep her safe.
Bethany: Sound complicated? We know…
Adam spent most of the past four years impressed into service on a Royal Navy ship. His father eventually found and managed to pay the fee to free him, just in time to set their family accounts to right before his death. Adam is busy clearing out and repossessing his ancestral home when Ruth appears at his doorstep. She cannot recognize him because of her poor eyesight and the fact that his voice was damaged during the attack. The rest of the book is basically Adam courting Ruth without telling her he’s Adam, AKA Chatsworth Adoniram Wilkinson, Baron of Wycliff.
Bethany: If you couldn’t already tell, this plot is…pretty…convoluted. There were so many details that sent the characters spinning into about 5 million different directions, which made it hard to focus on any one scene. While this can sometimes drive a story forward, I found myself wishing the plot would stop dragging.
Jeriann: Though there were too many complications in the plot, Ruth’s disabilities seemed very intentionally written. Ruth’s family members, though loving, are not always considerate of her needs in regards to her declining vision and PTSD. Part of why Ruth wants to get out of her parents’ home is because she needs a space of her own, where people don’t move her things.
Bethany: Ruth’s sister, Ester, specifically illustrates the struggle Ruth experiences in her family’s home. When Ruth mentions that she needs to run a household that will be safe for her and her disabilities, Ester is outraged. She repeatedly states that Ruth can’t live alone if she can’t see, especially considering Ruth’s tendency to bump into furniture and run late to events. Ruth has to explain, for what is obviously not the first time, that if her things weren’t moved from their intentional locations without her knowledge or permission and if she could have a clock that chimes the hour, both of those problems would be easily solved.
Jeriann: While Ruth’s eyesight largely functions as a logical explanation for her failure to recognize Adam, it serves to show a historical perspective of how people coped with vision problems before modern technology. Ruth has bottle-glass spectacles that give her headaches, and she is well aware that she may lose vision completely at some point. Her vision problems are a realistic way to add to the conflict, though none of this explains why Adam continues to keep her in the dark about his real identity, which was my main problem with that plot point.
Bethany: As I have mentioned in many romance reviews, honesty and good communication are key to strong relationships, yet the characters prefer to keep secrets and talk in double-speak instead of being clear about their emotions. Granted, there wouldn’t be much of a book without the miscommunications…This book made the double-speak and miscommunications harder to follow because the point-of-view switched between Adam and Ruth without clearly stating which character was narrating.
Jeriann: The POV switches started out being clearly noted, but throughout the book, became more integrated with each other, making them harder to distinguish. It didn’t help that Ruth’s perspective was 1st person, and Adam’s was close-3rd person. I also felt the characters’ attraction to each other was…unfounded… They felt that they were strongly pulled toward one another, meant to be, but we never really see why they are in love. Both of them are almost solely defined by their “stubbornness,” which really just means they don’t listen to anyone, including one another. Ruth is supposedly defined by her rebelliousness, but we mostly just see her naivete and failure to cope with difficulties in the world, even before her injuries. I think Adam maybe is supposed to be noble, but that really just translates as stubbornness in this storyline.
Bethany: While the irritating characterization is not unique to the regency romances I have read in the past, there is one aspect of this book that differs: The Bewildered Bride centers people of color as the main characters. Ruth is what was known at the time as a “Blackamoor” heiress. The term Blackamoor is a term used to describe a very dark-skinned person, usually of African descent, from black and Moor (a reference to the Muslim heritage of many regions in Africa).
Jeriann: I had never heard this term before, and from the context of the book, I assumed it boiled down to “black socialite.” Ruth’s family is a decently respected merchant family, who are well-regarded, though limited by society because of the color of their skin.
Bethany: Adam refers to himself as “Mulatto,” a term historically used to describe people of mixed white and black ancestry, usually a person with one white and one black parent. Adam can generally “pass” as white in society, which makes it easier for him to inherit the barony and move among higher society.
Side note: The terms “Blackamoor” and “Mulatto” have both historically been used in offensive ways to persecute people of color. Individuals have different opinions on the use of these words, some reclaiming them, and others wishing to avoid them because of their hurtful history. This is a book by a black author that centers people of color, and these terms as well as other race-specific issues are briefly contextualized by the author at the end of the book. It’s best not to assume how someone may feel about these words based on their skin color or heritage.
Bethany: It was awesome to see people of color in a historical romance! The romances I typically read tend to ignore the existence of people of color (except – maybe, occasionally – as servants). I really enjoyed learning about another facet of society that has been excluded from mainstream portrayals of the time period.
Jeriann: Another important issue The Bewildered Bride addresses is that of rape. Ruth was found in a brothel with confused memories of how she got there, and there is uncertainty about the heritage of her son. Personally, she deals with the physical and emotional trauma of her assault, and societally, she fears for the future of her son because of the circumstances of his conception. Adam slowly learns about what happened to Ruth after the attack, and the way he internally struggles with the boy’s possible paternity is measured and human.
We both raised our eyebrows a bit about how Ruth’s trauma suddenly disappeared when it came to physical interactions with Adam. Considering Ruth’s hesitance to enter a physical relationship, to the extent that she purposefully plans a marriage that excludes physical intimacy, the speed at which she and Adam fall into bed together seems to gloss over her struggle with PTSD. It goes back to their magical love that solves all problems in the world, and didn’t seem to give the issue of sexual trauma the gravity and compassion it deserves.
The Bewildered Bride has outrageous characters making ridiculous decisions. If you enjoy characters that thrive on pointless drama like the annoying mom in Pride and Prejudice, then you’ll probably have fun diving into Ruth and Adam’s story. This is a much more inclusive view of Regency London than many books present, and despite some other flaws, that makes it worth a read in our minds.