At one point in The Sum of All Kisses, our characters eat wedding cake that is frosted with beautiful lavender flowers. This book is like really, really good cake, the kind that is beautiful to look at and delicious to taste and not too sweet and wonderfully filling. I loved every tiny crumb.
The Sum of All Kisses is the third book in the Regency period Smythe-Smith quartet. It’s fine as a standalone. I say this with great confidence, because although I did read the preceding two books, I can’t remember anything about them. I’m serious; I had to look them up just to see who they were about. And I reviewed one of those books, which doesn’t speak well for its emotional impact. Luckily, The Sum of All Kisses is very emotionally powerful, and has great characterization, plus it is beautifully structured, and funny. I won’t be forgetting this one any time soon.
In this book, our hero, Hugh, deals with the aftermath of having shot his friend Daniel (not fatally) during a duel. Hugh was also wounded in the duel, with the result that he has a permanent, and painful, limp. Hugh’s powerful father ordered Daniel killed; Daniel fled the country, and after years of maneuvering Hugh finally convinced his father to back off so that Daniel could come back. Daniel and Hugh have reconciled and Daniel wants Hugh to be at a series of family weddings. Alas for Hugh, he finds himself thrown together with the one member of the family who has not forgiven him: Sarah.
I’m a big Julia Quinn fan, but lately I’ve found her books to be sort of – uninvolving. I liked the characters and the dialogue and had a perfectly enjoyable time reading the books, but I wasn’t engrossed or particularly emotionally invested. Ever since What Happens in London, which is one of my favorite books of all time, the Quinn books have been missing something. Luckily, The Sum of All Kisses more than makes up for the flat spell Quinn had subjected me to before. For one thing, this book has tropes I adore and a tendency to mess around with them in fresh and interesting ways.
Let’s sum up (no pun intended) a few of the reasons I love this book:
It has a mathematician genius hero with a perfect memory. Smart heroes are the best.
It has a prickly heroine who is neither perfect nor sweet but who turns out to be TOTALLY BADASS. Then she has post-combat jitters and some well-deserved hysteria, for approximately five minutes. Then she segues right back into being TOTALLY BADASS.
Sarah is a different type of heroine than I usually enjoy, but the writing is so solid that she is firmly sympathetic even though she is deeply flawed. She’s a person – a slightly messed up, refreshingly direct, wonderfully badass person. Meanwhile, I normally dislike broody alpha men but Hugh is not a type – he’s a complicated, flawed, learning person. I love them, and I love seeing them truly see each other in a way no one else can.
The characters help each other change and grow even as they learn to accept one another without reservations.
The hero is an alpha brooder, but he is struggling to come to terms with his disability, and this leads to a fresh way of dealing with the alpha thing. He has to redefine what “strong” means, and what a loving relationship with a woman looks like if he can’t physically protect her all the time. I have a huge weakness for stories that accurately portray disabilities and in his case there’s no magic cure – he has to find his happy ending within the limits that his body imposes, and those limits are significant.
There’s some clever role reversal that leads to one of the most romantic moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, not to mention tons of believable, well-written character growth.
- The book is frickin’ hilarious. And sexy, and romantic, and suspenseful, and moving. And I just have to say it again – it’s so, so funny!
When this book is angsty, oh my, there is some serious angst. There’s angst about being disabled and there’s angst about finding out that you have character flaws, but the serious angst, the not at all played for comedy, very dark, trigger alert angst, involves Hugh’s father. Frankly, I thought there was enough angst to go around without raising the topic of Hugh’s father’s abuse of his wife and of his sons in the past (and, emotionally, in the present). This topic is alluded to very vaguely throughout the book and suddenly leaps into the forefront of the plot towards the end. The father’s abuse of Hugh’s brother, Freddie, is particularly horrifying. The abuse happens off page and is alluded to, rather than graphically described, but that almost makes it worse because my imagination fills in the gaps in the most upsetting way.
Recently, I’ve read a lot of books in which the conflicts were so powerfully drawn that the authors were hard-pressed to find a happy ever after amidst all the wreckage they had so skillfully wreaked in their character’s lives. For almost all of The Sum of All Kisses, there is only one obstacle to Sarah and Hugh’s romance – they hate each other. It is pure romantic comedy at its finest, and one sits back, watches them bicker, and says, in the words of Lady Danbury, “Entertain me!” It’s bliss. It’s such bliss that the sudden influx of drama towards the end is the only weak note in the book. It doesn’t flow naturally or even make much sense – it’s as though the author got that far and went, “Crap! I forgot conflict!” The severity of the abuse alluded to is tonally jarring and I’m not convinced that Hugh and Sarah will actually be OK in their future with such a dark past, and a rather menacing present, hanging over them.
But see, to give up that last stage of conflict, I’d have to give up some of my favorite parts of the book. Sarah does something incredibly dumb but fully in character, and then something incredibly smart and loaded with common sense, and then is totally badass, as I believe I’ve mentioned, and it’s just wonderful. So I’m willing to roll with the startling shift from the romantic comedy majority of the books to the action-packed, deeply dangerous, and fraught with emotional baggage climax, because it’s so satisfying to read.
Now what I want to know is, can we please have a book about Hugh’s brother, Freddie? Not a novella, not a side thread in someone else’s book. I want Freddie to have his own novel. He deserves it. I don’t think I’ll get it – but I really, really want it. I know there are limitations on the life that Freddie could lead, but I think he could find a measure of romantic bliss and I need to see that after reading about all his pain. Fingers crossed. I'm giving this bok an A- because it made me so darn happy. The minus is because some of the tonal shifts regarding abuse were akward – not because I'm always opposed to dark material, but because they seemed to be shoehorned in somewhat awkwardly.