* A version of this review appear at Love In The Margins.
Is there such a thing as Eloisa James disease? If there is, Julia Quinn caught a bad case of it. I'm so frustrated by The Sum of All Kisses. We begin in such a fantastic place that I start to think this is going to be my favorite Quinn book ever and we end in such a pile of melodrama that it makes Eloisa's chicken coop scene in When Beauty Tamed The Beast look restrained. Seriously, it's the late night infomercial of melodrama. (Now how much would you believe? Not that much.)
We start off with Hugh, the second son of the very crazy Ramsgate. Hugh was the other party in Daniel Smythe-Smith's duel, (in A Night Like This) leaving Hugh with a ton of baggage and a bad leg. For much of the book Quinn gets Hugh exactly right. He's intelligent, he's capable, he's ambulatory with practical adjustments for his physical stamina. There is the occasional insertion of nonsensical no-woman-will-want-me thoughts but it's initially kept to a minimum. Hugh has a fierce loyalty to those he loves, and he loves Daniel Smythe-Smith so circumstances require him to attend the marriages of Daniel and Daniel's sister Honoria. This obligation places him in close proximity to their cousin, Lady Sarah Pleinsworth. Sarah is equally fierce in loyalty to those she loves which puts Hugh on the wrong side of her before they've even met. Further alienating them is the duel itself causing Sarah to miss her first, and possibly best, chance at the marriage mart.
For much of the book I truly enjoyed Sarah and Hugh. The emotional, dramatic heroine and the arch, cerebral hero are the perfect pair for a dialogue driven novel. Quinn writes realistic sibling relationships and when she sticks to the interpersonal dynamics the book soars. (The only false note is a sharp scene where Sarah's cousin takes what appears to be a completely unfair shot. Quinn likes to write with interconnected timelines so I assume this will be explored in the next Smythe-Smith installment.) The exploration of divided and colliding loyalties in the lives of the Hugh, Sarah and the Smythe-Smiths is some of the finest genre work I've read this year. It was love. Until it wasn't.
Toward the third act everything went in the handbasket. Hugh began obsessing over his ugly (CHECK!) leg that kept him from being a real man (No dancing? He loved dancing? CHECK!) and therefore made him ineligible for the love of any woman (CHECK!). There's a scene where his physical infirmity means he cannot rescue her from danger (CHECK!) causing him to consider how much better off she'd be without him. For her part, Sarah goes from never once having kissed a man to being completely up for it on the lawn of her family home. From the first brush of the lips to up the skirts, our girl is full of healthy hunger ready to roll. I sighed. A lot. Not in a good way. Despite my frustration with portions of the injury portrayal, the book still hovered at a high B. Cue the chicken coop. And by chicken coop I mean spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers.
Seriously. Stop reading right here if you care at all about yourself. I mean it. Not another word.
Ok. I'm not the boss of you. Let's keep going. So Hugh, who has been dealing with this leg for years and is attractive, intelligent and likely to inherit (or have his son inherit) a title has decided his lack of dancing ability makes him damaged goods. Unlike that fat syphilitic guy over there twice his age, but we won't examine Hugh's self esteem issues too closely because his dad is coming to town. In a book almost entirely devoted to the tricky interpersonal workings of family relationships, Hugh has barely had any interaction with his. We meet his brother Freddie early on and establish that he cares deeply for Hugh. So where is he? He's off being gay. Freddie exists as a prop to illustrate the goodness of Hugh and the vileness of Hugh's father. I could write an entire review based on that choice alone, but Quinn quickly distracts me by turning the melodrama up to eleventy.
In A Night Like This Daniel was trying to stay one step ahead of Ramsgate. Ramsgate wanted to kill Daniel because Hugh led him to believe the duel had resulted in Hugh's infertility. Hugh told Ramsgate if Daniel died, Hugh would kill himself and thus end the chance for a child. I expected The Sum of All Kisses to explore the depression that would make this seem a reasonable course of action to Hugh. We don't. Instead we keep dialing the melodrama up until we can't add melodrama no more. In the final few chapters Quinn shoehorns in a frothing at the mouth backstory for Hugh and Freddie that is completely unnecessary. She has Ramsgate drug Hugh, tie him to a bed and contemplate marrying Freddie off and raping his wife. Sarah storms in and frees Hugh. (Further emasculating him? No, arousing him. Because of course.) She then tells Ramsgate if he backs off she will marry Hugh and bear children, on the condition he leaves them all alone.
No really, she does. This is greeted by everyone as brilliant. Sure, Ramsgate is a delusional, violent sadist, but he keeps his word. Sarah and Hugh should be good. Never mind that once Sarah pops out an heir (or two) there is no reason to keep Daniel and Hugh alive. It's not like Sarah can turn around and un-procreate. Sarah even acknowledges that Ramsgate will have a place at the baptismal font. Because he's family or something. Sarah pats herself on the back for figuring out this oh-so-obvious solution that eluded those poor dumb men and hold Hugh to her bosom so he can sob out his tortured back history. Daddy hurt mommy in bed, never liked Hugh, hates Freddie for being gay, hired sex workers to repeatedly rape Freddie and... he just goes on and on. It's like trying to track down and kill Daniel wasn't crazy enough so Quinn keeps going in case something will stick. But gosh, we're stuck with the guy so we'll have to make nice at family functions or something. (Assuming Sarah is fertile. I don't like her chances if she isn't.)
I couldn't even with the ending of this book. There wasn't enough face palming and WTFing in the world. Sarah was as reality challenged as the rest of the room. Leaving the whole Same Love Macklemore vibe of the invisible Freddie aside, if you have any experience with domestic violence this "solution" is impossible to buy into. Ramsgate is a murderous sociopathic stalker. How is he going to do anything other than murder Daniel, Sarah and Hugh once a child is born? Why would he risk exposing the focus of his aims to the whims of these failures? Because Sarah would get mad? Because Hugh might kill himself? So what? The guy wants a do-over on the heir front and he doesn't care very much how that happens. He is very not okay with decades of actions proving it. There is no negotiated peace with this flavor of toxicity. I can't go above a C at this point and only the first two thirds of the book are keeping me from D territory. The Sum of All Kisses should have been a wonderful book but it was ultimately unequal to it's premise.