The Bittersweet Bride by Vanessa Riley. Entangled: Amara. 2018.
Note: I do not recommend this book for Deaf, Hard of Hearing, disfigured, or disabled readers.
Note #2: I do not participate in keeping reveals of marginalized identities to the reader “spoiler free”. I do not put them under spoiler warnings, as I feel surprise reveals of these identities are part of a framework that is deeply tied in to oppressive narratives, and I will not participate in it.
I have a bunch of mixed and conflicting feelings about this book.
The Bittersweet Bride is a tightly plotted, rather intense, deeply characterized, complex historical romance. I liked that although Theo is definitely justifiably bitter about what has happened to her, and is fighting for her survival, its a story that focuses on how she is taking action for herself to make her life better, despite rather considerable obstacles and restraints. Riley is a new to me author, and I will definitely be trying her backlist because this was so well paced, and unfolded beautifully. Also, look at the gorgeous cover!
This book is tropetastic in very histrommy ways: second chance romance, inheritance issues pushing a widow into a precarious situation, a secret baby, a scandalous play, an evil guardian, a villainous father who exploits power and social standing, a troubled past. For the most part, these tropes worked very well together and it was a pleasure to read them in a historical romance centering a Black heroine (representation that is rare in historical romance).
The heroine Theo grabbed me from the beginning; I cared so deeply about her survival, and really wanted her to get a happy ending. I especially appreciated how angry she was, how hard she fought for safety for herself and her child, her friendships with her two BFFs (who I hope will be the heroines of the later books in the series), how complex her emotions were, how deeply she loved Ewan and how conflicted she was about that, and how much she stood her ground about needing a husband she could trust would stand up for her and her child and help them to be safe.
This is a romance where the characters have had sex in the past, but we do not read sex on the page. I didn’t miss it, it felt right for this story. This has a hard-earned happy ending, and I appreciated that, was really glad to see her stand up for herself and what she needed.
Unfortunately, I had trouble rooting for (and even liking) the hero. I struggled so much with how little he really understood the way his privilege was working and how vulnerable her situation was and how much his betrayal & his family had impacted her. Even after he had all the information, he still was so damned stuck in his own sense of the world through the lens of his privilege, and did not get how racism, misogyny, and class were working to make her vulnerable. I know that he is supposed to have a learning arc around this, but he barely begins to get it by the end and I just wasn’t sure he deserved her or could really grasp what was going on enough to stand up for her and know when she was vulnerable and needed support. So, that was an issue for me.
But it wasn’t my only issue with the hero in this story. Ewan basically stalks her. (details in white, highlight to read) He follows her around, keeps coming to her house over and over after being turned away, sneaks around watching her, breaks into her bedroom, all without her consent, all after she keeps telling him no, all after she is clearly upset and scared of him and how vulnerable she is. I know that in this historical framework (and in the story) these things are seen as proof of his love and him being persistent, and these kinds of actions are often accepted in the subgenre. I still struggled with how scared they made her, how he clearly got that she was upset but kept doing it, how little he listened to her no, pretty much throughout the entire book. Maybe its me bringing a new lens to the subgenre, or maybe it was presented differently and that’s what made it stand out? I’m not sure.
I was deeply troubled by the rather intense ableism and disfiguremisia in the story. The hero is a combat vet and is disabled and scarred from combat. There is a moment when his brother says the scars look terrible, and then the text describes them as if they are horrifying, and he says, “They are terrible, Jasper. All scars are.” This moment in the story was very difficult for me to read, as someone who also has scars from injuries. I literally flinched when I read that. This concept of scars is never challenged textually or by other characters.
Theo’s son is hard of hearing and doctors predicted that he would become deaf soon. I was deeply troubled by the way he is discussed in the text, and his role in the story. His Deafness is said to be directly caused by Theo’s starvation in pregnancy, for which the hero’s family and the hero are blamed. (As far as I could find out, this is not something current medicine supports as a reason for hearing loss.) His Deafness is discussed primarily as his mother’s greatest regret and as a source of conflict for the story. He barely says a word in the story, and we barely see him; he does not have a personality beyond experiencing ear pain, being vulnerable because of his Deafness, being a tragedy in his mother’s life, and a secret, and the person his mother does anything to protect. He is a classic example of a character being reduced to their disability and to a tragic figure, and that disability being used as a plot device. There are many moments in this representation that are painful, but for me the hardest one is when Theo is asked what she wants, and she replies that she wants her son to be “whole”. That idea, that what she wants most in the world is for her Deaf child to not be Deaf, that she thinks he is not whole…it hurt to read that. It hurt to have that kind of intense ableism built into who she is as a character, and entrenched in this story, never challenged once.
I want to note that while this kind of ableism and disfiguremisia was commonplace during this historical time period, this book was published for a 2018 audiencee and does not need to choose historical accuracy over the impact that this kind of ableism and disfiguremisia has on readers, particularly disabled and disfigured readers.
Overall, there were many things I really enjoyed about this story, and some things that did not work for me. I do want to read the next book in this series (I’m hoping Theo’s BFFs will be the MCs), and will be checking out Riley’s backlist. There are many lovely things about this book, despite the problems I had with it, and I want to give her work another try.
- Black woman MC
- Disabled and disfigured man MC
- Black biracial child who is hard of hearing
- Black woman author
Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)
Many racist and misogynist comments throughout the text about the heroine, mostly directed to the hero, who generally challenges them. These comments include sexualization, slut shaming, and sex work antagonism. Those aspects are less challenged, and there is a general feel of sex work antagonism throughout the story. One of the central aspects of the story is structural racism targeting the heroine, her biracial child, and interracial relationships. References to starvation, homelessness. Creepy coercive secondary character who continually threatens the heroine with both sexual assault and forced marriage. Hero does many things that look a lot like stalking; the text presents them fairly neutrally, though it does show them as clearly unwanted and creating fear for the heroine. Ableism and disfiguremisia are built into the text, and are not challenged. Ableism drives character motivations and emotions in fairly classic abled parent makes their child’s disability all about them tragedy kind of ways.
- Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
- I have had no contact with the author.
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