Review: THE BITTERSWEET BRIDE by Vanessa Riley
Diverse Historical Romance
Widow Theodosia Cecil needs a husband to help protect her son. The former flower seller turned estate owner posts an ad in the newspaper, and no one is more surprised than she when her first love, the man she thought dead, reappears.
Ewan Fitzwilliam has been at war for six years. Now, the second son of a powerful earl is back but his beloved Theo needs a husband and will not consider him. She believes Ewan left her—in desperate straits—so she denies the feelings she still harbors for the handsome, scarred soldier. Theo and playwright Ewan must overcome bitter lies and vengeful actions that ruined their youthful affair. Theo must reveal her deepest secret in order to reclaim the love that has long been denied.
*I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Netgalley and the publisher in return for an unbiased review.
I really wanted to love this book, and parts of it, even most of it, I definitely adored. It hurt me though. One of the attitudes the author must hold, because it came through in her character, Theodosia, hurt me so much.
First. The things I loved.
This is a very well written book, the pacing, plot, twists, the turning points and the romance are all exactly where they should be. There isn’t any sex in this book, so it’s a safe read for ace readers trying to find romance without sex. There’s a bit of teasing (nipping fingers) and some kisses, but that’s it.
I loved the characters and really felt their conflict, most of their motivations and the history is almost spot on.
The description is lovely, but could be deepened a bit so that I felt the emotions more.
I loved the historical accuracy depicted. The types we so rarely see in historical novels of how prevalent black and mixed-race people were in the UK in the 1800s. That alone makes it worth reading if you can overlook its flaws.
I liked the interesting uniqueness to the premise of a newspaper bride in the UK. Usually we read stories like those set out west in America. The star-crossed romance, second chance romance and enemies to lovers tropes were carried out flawlessly, those aspects I really enjoyed.
It was definitely a good enough book to keep me up long past my bedtime.
Now, on to the content warnings and what I absolutely hated.
I needed content warnings on the language. Theodosia is mixed-race, and it would’ve been REALLY nice, as I’m also mixed-race, to have a heads up on slur words that have been thrown at me all my life.
Content warning on the early and frequent usage of mixed-race slur words in a way that was intentional, to make the reader feel the pain Theodosia feels about them.
Content warning on disability as a plot device, disability porn.
The slurs stung. They were meant to, so the words did their job, but I really needed a content warning on that. I still would’ve read the book, but it would’ve prepared me and they wouldn’t have hurt so much.
I didn’t like how Theo’s eyes were described, ‘almond-eyed’ gods I get so sick of that term. Really, there are so many ways to describe eye shape that that phrase is just over-used and needs to be shoved down the coal-chute of writers everywhere.
It’s also massively inaccurate as a method of describing East Asian eyes, which is usually what people are trying to do by using it.
Here… you can read more on the subject here. Writing With Color-Describing Asian Eyes
But the thing that I hated about this book was how Theo thought about her son.
Phillip, Theo’s son, is going deaf. There is SO MUCH guilt, shame, and wanting to fix her kid that I don’t know how Theo can even be believed as loving her kid.
I hated this so much. I’m physically disabled and it absolutely hurt me to read that.
I guess, maybe for people who don’t have a close and personal experience of physical disability it wouldn’t bother them? There wasn’t a miracle cure, so at least the author avoided that, but gahhhh.
Sign-language is officially credited as being invented in 1620. But we have written records referring to it dating back to the fifth century BC. History of sign language.
By 1720, the British manual alphabet had found close to its modern form, so I find it close to inexcusable that someone who obviously did their research with regards to history didn’t mention Theo trying to have someone teach her son, who is depicted as going deaf quite rapidly, some form of sign language.
She has a doctor come in twice over the course of the book and doctors of the time period CERTAINLY would’ve known about sign language.
Instead, the focus is all on how Theo is going to ‘fix’ her kid. How she blames herself for what caused his injury (which wasn’t even her fault? It was the actions of someone else? So just, editorially, that motivation makes absolutely no sense. It’s much more believable that she’d be furious and out for revenge on the people who ACTUALLY hurt her kid.)
That hurt and took what could have been an absolutely amazing book down several notches. It also hurt to read.
I and my kids are autistic and I have never wanted to fix them. We live with the constant knowledge that society wants to ‘fix’ we autistics out of existence, and often? It’s the ‘autism mommies’ who want to erase us.
Moms like Theo, who blames herself and vows to fix her kid. IE: (quoted from the book) “She’d never give up on trying to make her son whole.”
Instead of giving him the tools he needed to get by in the world?
That’s the worst sort of disability porn there is. It’s a plot device.
Disability. Is. Not. A. Plot. Device.
I can’t repeat how much I hated that part of the book.
It really could have been as close to perfect as a sex-free romance could ever be for me.
I do hope if the author chooses to depict disabled characters again that she takes a hard look at that ingrained issue that so badly exposed itself in this book.
Being disabled isn’t a tragedy. We can and do live happy, fulfilling, wonderful lives.
Being born different also isn’t a tragedy, I don’t know of many adult autistics who would want to be ‘fixed’.
And yes, absolutely, I’m very sensitive about this issue, but that’s why we need to work so hard as authors to not do things like this that will hurt our readers.
With that all said, am I glad I read the book? Yes. It was more enjoyable than it was painful. It could’ve been a LOT better if being disabled hadn’t been used as a plot device and a great woe-is-me fest, but yes, it’s a good book.
It could’ve been a GREAT one, and I think it’s almost more painful when something that could have been phenomenal has such a massive case of the OMG whuts?
I’ll be looking for more books by the author, I have a feeling the side characters in this one will be the heroines in the next two books, so I’ll pick them up when I see them available.
The author is good at the storytelling peeps, she writes well and has a fascinating way of twisting the tropes in new and inventive ways that I don’t see a lot of in historical romance.
So, do read it, just be aware that this is not what we should be doing with our disabled characters.
This would’ve been a 5 star review without that issue.
READABILITY: 5/5 stars. Kept me up past my bedtime, distracted me from being ill, page turning, so very good.
ARCS: 4/5 stars. Disregarding the disability porn aspect, the arcs are perfect, everything is just where it should be.
CRAFT: 4/5 stars. Fantastically written. Research was really good except for that one glaring error of sign language had been invented and used for a long time already.
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