I read this book on my way to Arizona last week, and when I arrived, I had lunch with the RWA chapter president, Amylynn Bright. She asked me what I was reading and how I liked it. We're both Julia Quinn fans (Good Book Noise® was made repeatedly) but I found myself describing the book in a way that made it sound as if I didn't like it.
I did like it. But when I described it as “light,” “funny,” “bubbly,” entertaining with a few surprising really deep moments of emotion, I felt like I was damning the book with faint praise. I like light historicals. I like funny and witty banter. I like the familiar familial relationships.
And I like that this is one of the safest and warmest Regency worlds in the universe when it comes to past characters. There's Bridgertons and Smythe-Smith characters all over the place, and they're all happy and witty and charming, too.
What bothered me about this book was the ending: the presence of someone specifically unsafe and terrorizing, and his enduring ability to not be defeated, left me unhappy. I didn't feel as if the hero and heroine really solved their problem, which is hard to discuss without spoiling everything, but I'll do my best to explain, and the ending of the book left them, in my opinion, temporarily and rather precariously safe and happy. I wanted more solidity to their future. Perhaps it will come in future books, but I wanted it now. And of course, the conclusion of this book undermines my assertions that the Bridgeton/Smythe-Smith world is safe, because due to one unfettered jackhole, it's not safe for the hero and heroine.
The hero, Hugh, was wounded (you read this almost as a replay at the start of the book) in a duel with Daniel Smythe-Smith, the hero of the previous book who is now set to marry the former governess for his cousins. (Their somewhat happy ending was also unsatisfying for me. I still feel like there's a hole in that story, and I didn't find the answer in this book, either).
Because Daniel shot Hugh in the leg, and Hugh nearly died, Hugh's father, the duke, swore he'd kill Daniel in revenge for his son's injury, and Daniel fled the country for years. Eventually Hugh figures out a way to stop his father's pursuit of Daniel, and finds Daniel to tell him it's safe to come home. That was the start of A Night Like This, and the replay of the duel and Hugh's injuries begins The Sum of All Kisses..
(So, yeah, you probably shouldn't start with this one, because the backstory of all the Smythe-Smith stories is tied into the various books beginning the Just Like Heaven.)
The Sum of All Kisses takes place against the events that just finished in the prior books. The weddings are about to occur, one after another, and Hugh is attending both. He's not pleased about this.
Hugh's injury in the duel, a duel he has always felt responsible for, was severe. He now walks with a limp, struggles with pain in his leg if he exerts himself, and struggles with his physical limitations as he tries to resume life as the likely heir for the duke's estate. Hugh has an older brother, but for reasons explained in the book, it is unlikely that his brother, whom Hugh loves very much, will marry or have children. Hugh's physical limitations and the amount of pain he endures daily has an emotional toll on his character, along with the guilt of being the original cause of his own misery by challenging his best friend to a duel in the first place. The fact that he shot Daniel in the shoulder accidentally and Daniel fired back, aiming for him, doesn't register (I think Daniel has a share of the responsibility for Hugh's injuries but I might be the only one, aside from the evidence of moments of remorse from Daniel, who thinks so). Hugh is unhappy and in some pain, and he thinks that's exactly what he deserves.
I liked Hugh. He was broody and grumpy and very smart, and while I thought he flogged himself a little too hard for a little too long over the duel, I understood why his morality required it of him. I also understood that he accepted his actions and accepted what he felt were adequate consequences for them (though I disagreed), but was glad to see part of his emotional journey was toward forgiving himself. Because jeez, dude.
Sarah, one Daniel's cousins, is the heroine, and you might want to sketch a family tree to start keeping them all straight in your mind. Sarah has several sisters, and their relationship and their conversations (especially when involving plays, unicorns, taking care of one another) are some of the best parts of the book. It seems I have a thing for sticking all the characters in a carriage and making them talk to one another, because those were my absolute favorite scenes (especially what they named the trip in the first place). (I'm trying really hard not to spoil the charming parts, at the expense of making this review more boring, so I apologize).
Sarah is strong and fiercely loyal, and she thinks Hugh is a horrible person for the misery his actions caused her family. When Daniel had to flee England, the entire family suffered, including Sarah, whose first season was cancelled because of the scandal. Sarah, who wants very much to marry and have a family, saw many matches take place during her cancelled season, and resents the hell out of Hugh for that. Four more seasons without a match and she's even more angry at Hugh.
Sarah's loyalty (and her blindness to flaws in her reasoning) make her brave and reckless. She and Hugh are paired by the bride for the wedding after a different cousin becomes ill and can't attend, and their mutual dislike is well known enough that only the request and pleading of the bride make them temporarily cease disliking one another. Sarah has no interest in sparing Hugh the exact dimensions of how much hate she carries for him (it's a lot, probably requiring at least two carriages to move it all around) and Hugh, to his credit, ultimately gets tired of having her throw down the insults at him and tells her off. This doesn't improve relations between them but does infuse the dialogue with some excellent energy.
Ultimately, this is an enemies-to-lovers story, and each character learns about him- or herself in such a way that they grow as people while they forgive each other, and themselves. I liked that a lot. The internal conflict was MUCH stronger and nuanced than the external conflict. I love that Sarah is strong, but learns about herself, and learns to address and change her flaws after another character calls her on her behavior. I love that Hugh has to forgive himself, and learn that he has a lot to offer people, that his life and his masculinity aren't cancelled because he has a limp.
The good part: there were some scenes that made my heart, my entire chest sting with emotion. Oh, gosh, the tingles. When I read a really emotional, poignant scene, I feel burning tingles across my chest and down my arms. I end up rubbing the area over my heart like a walking cliche, but it's true. A good scene with real emotion elicits a response I feel physically when I'm reading, and this book had a few of them, big ones. It's been awhile since I felt the emo-tingles, and I missed them.
The not so good part: the ending. There's this incredible slow development of enemies to not enemies to maybe friends to gee I wish I didn't notice your physical person at all can we go back to being enemies…. and then BAM IT IS MADCAP ZOOMING THRILLER TIME. There was a moment about 3/4ths through the book, when all seemed well between the hero and heroine, and I wrote in the comments, “Ok, what's the next conflict?”
AND BAM THERE IT WAS. The external conflict that didn't nearly measure up to the power and emotional complexity of the internal conflict between Hugh and Sarah deflated this book for me. I would have been hollering to everyone on the plane to read it right now if it hadn't been for the ending. Let me see if I can explain without giving away the setup of the story and the twist at the end.
Once Sarah and Hugh address their personal differences and admit that they have Big Feelings for one another (cut the emo-tingles, big sigh), there has to be something keeping them apart, of course. There were too many pages until the ending for that to be the ending. The conflict that appears between them is part of what allowed Daniel to arrive home in the first place in the previous book, and is big and annoying and entirely rests on one other person – Hugh's father.
The resolution to that conflict was not satisfying for me at all. Sarah and Hugh have to accept … some unacceptable things in order to achieve temporary peace and happiness. I didn't believe in the reasoning behind it, I didn't think it was as ironclad as Hugh and Sarah seemed to believe, and I didn't think it would work. I don't think their happy ending is built on solid ground. I think it's built on faulty reasoning and flawed strategy.
Plus, “completely crazy” makes for toothless villainy. Selfish and without limits is scary, especially when paired with power, position, money, influence and a lot of reach. That's plenty scary. “He's insane” was the more-often reason given for Hugh's father's decisions and actions, and “he's insane” is not a reason. It's not enough reason, anyway, and only made the villainy seem less real, and the solution they found less than secure. If he's actually insane, why should their solution work? I don't think it will, and thus I didn't like the ending.
Part of Hugh's character development and revelation also comes with revealing and discussing the abuse he and his brother suffered (as well as his mother) at the hands and manipulations of his father. This guy is a horrible human being. The degree to which the duke retains power and influence over them, while likely very realistic, is scary and not satisfying, as is the way the bulk of the abuse is revealed and discussed. I wanted more limitations on the external conflict, and in the end, I don't really think they were there.
When I talked about this book, I kept qualifying the things I didn't like (I was about 1 chapter from the end) with the fact that, regardless of how much the characters' decisions didn't work for me, I'll still read the next one. I like the dialogue – screw that, I love it. I love the wit, the humor, the real and understandable relations between the family members, the funny parts, the silly parts, and most of all the emo-tingles when the emotional worlds of the hero and heroine are brought finally into alignment. That moment is always so satisfying, even when the ending deflates like this one did.
I'm giving this a C+. Without the ending, I'd have graded higher. I didn't love this book in its entirety. I loved just about everything up to the end, but the end was so ill-fitting for me. But I will re-read the parts I highlighted for a few residual moments of reaction, and I'll absolutely read the next one, looking for more. When the emo-tingles are good, they're exquisite.