REVIEW: Surrender to Ruin by Carolyn Jewel
Dear Ms. Jewel,
As you are the author of one of Scandal, one of my favorite historical romances of this decade, I was excited when I saw that Surrender to Ruin had finally been released.
This is the third book in the Sinclair Sisters trilogy, which began with Lord Ruin, a book I read a bit less than half of. In Lord Ruin, Anne Sinclair is forced to marry the Duke of Cynssyr to avoid ruin. Before her forced marriage, Anne had intended to marry the duke’s friend, Devon Carlisle, and while she quickly falls in love with the duke and gets over her loss, the same is not true for Devon.
Surrender to Ruin takes place three years later, and in the course of those three years, a powerful attraction has developed between Devon, now the earl of Bracebridge, and Anne’s youngest sister, Emily. Bracebridge has no intention of acting on that attraction—he sees Emily as frivolous and vain; his desire for her makes him disloyal, he feels, and he hates her for that—until Emily finds herself in a predicament.
Emily’s father, Thomas Sinclair, is addicted to gambling and thinks nothing of staking his and Emily’s home, the Cooperage, as well as Emily’s hand in marriage. Bracebridge is the owner of a gaming club, and when his business partner, Gopal Rachagorla, purchases Thomas Sinclair’s debt markers and brings them to Bracebridge’s attention, for Anne’s sake, Bracebridge confronts Sinclair.
Bracebridge has a checkered history; as a young man, he rebelled against his father, was cut off, and turned to shady businesses, including ownership of three brothels. He divested himself of them after unexpectedly coming into the title, but his reputation remains tarnished, and when Thomas Sinclair smears it further by claiming Bracebridge has intentionally bankrupted him, Bracebridge’s courtship of Clara Glynn, Emily’s closest friend, is rebuffed by Clara’s brother.
Bracebridge arrives at the Cooperage just as Emily is on the verge of succumbing to her father’s scheme to marry her to the wealthy Mr. Davener for money. She is therefore in a vulnerable place, and furthermore, has been in love with Bracebridge for the past three years, so when he offers to elope with her—both in order to protect her from her father for Anne’s sake, and for revenge on Thomas Sinclair—Emily accepts.
On the way to Gretna Green, Emily and Bracebridge have sex. The encounter devastates both of them, since it reveals just how incredibly compatible they are—in the bedroom, if nowhere else. The sex is raw, rough, and shatteringly honest, just as they both desire, but afterward, Bracebridge feels guilty for treating his wife, both a lady and a virgin, in such a manner, and he withdraws into himself.
After they marry and return home, he sets out to rectify this, but no sooner do they burn up the bedchamber again, than Anne and her husband arrive, and remind Bracebridge and Emily that Bracebridge loves Anne and has nothing in common with Emily, and that therefore Emily’s marriage to him will never be a happy one.
Can Bracebridge allow himself to love Emily, despite his determination to keep reminding himself of all the ways she falls short of Anne? Can Emily have faith in her marriage, enough to open herself to its possibilities, even as her well-meaning relatives keep sabotaging it?
Surrender to Ruin is written in beautiful, clear, elegant prose and is an emotionally powerful story. “Hero in love with another woman” is a trope that needs careful handling, and while I’m drawn to its emotional qualities, it’s hard to pull off in a satisfying way.
Surrender to Ruin was more effective than most romances featuring this trope, but it wasn’t without its issues. First, some of Emily and Bracebridge’s backstory is mentioned in passing early on, and I either didn’t get to it in the 47% I read of Lord Ruin, or managed to forget it, but regardless, I felt a bit like I was coming in at the middle of the storyline and wanted more details from their past interactions.
Second, while I liked what I saw of Emily, I didn’t get as strong a sense of her as I did of Bracebridge. It’s clear that she is far from the vain, frivolous young woman Bracebridge takes her for, but her inner turmoil isn’t as well delineated as his. Emily’s role in the novel is to love Bracebridge despite the mixed signals he gives her and despite her immense vulnerability to him. This was very moving but I wished that more of her perspective on this and her reasons for it had been provided.
Without more of Emily’s POV thoughts on this emotional conflict, she remains a bit murky. Her good qualities are enumerated multiple times–kindness, loyalty, fire, wit—and they are shown, too, but not to an equal degree. I particularly wanted to see a bit more of her fire outside of the bedroom, where she mostly put on a mask to hide her hurts. Still, I loved how honest she was with Bracebridge when they were physically intimate, and I understood where her reticence came from.
Bracebridge was a fascinating character and I loved the window we get into his internal conflict. The book has gotten some mixed reviews and I wonder how much of it is because today’s readers have become more used to instalove-driven, utterly devoted, fantasy-figure heroes, and how much because of the subtlety with which Bracebridge’s growing feelings for Emily are portrayed.
The deeper in love Bracebridge falls, the more he struggles to deny it and fight it. Because the linchpin of his conflict is his misplaced loyalty to Emily’s sister, Anne, I wished I’d understood what inspired this loyalty better and exactly why he clung to it so hard.
As incendiary as Emily and Bracebridge are in the bedroom (their sex life has the kind of brutal honesty and vulnerability that few historical romance novels supply, but is one of the reasons I continue to read the genre), Bracebridge makes much of his opinion that they have nothing in common outside of it. For this reason, I would have loved for this couple discover a shared interest or hidden commonality that had existed all along, but that they hadn’t known about. There were some lovely scenes of them reading to each other, but I wanted more to underscore the compatibility they didn’t think they had.
Emily and Bracebridge’s journey derives its emotional power from Emily’s long-unrequited love for Bracebridge. It’s obvious that there’s a potent chemistry between them and that if he just opened his eyes and fully accepted his appreciation for what he had in her, they could be happy. Bracebridge’s resistance makes much of the novel sad, but despite his mulishness, I could not really blame him for it.
Bracebridge had been upfront with Emily about his reasons for marrying her and she had gone into the marriage with open eyes. There was one heartbreaking scene where he goes back on a promise to Emily where I wanted to smack him, as well as to understand his motive better, but on the whole, despite the mixed signals he kept sending his wife, I really liked the confused blockhead. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen him fall for Emily I would have felt differently, but I did see it, subtly though it was portrayed.
Structurally, I wanted a deeper resolution to this conflict than we got. Emily went through a lot of pain over the course of the novel, and so, what I needed from this book—what I need from any novel where the hero is devoted to another woman—is for the power to flip at some point, for the hero to have to work hard for his HEA. This happened in Surrender to Ruin, which is why I liked the book. But I wished that it had happened in a more pronounced way.
Spoiler (Spoilers): Show
Still, I have to give Surrender to Ruin major, major points for being such a riveting read: well-researched, properly paced, and sexy in a smart and elegant way. Bracebridge’s complexity fascinated me, and I frequently found myself near tears while reading because I was so caught up in both main characters’ emotions. This is the kind of book that is as much a character study as a romance, and in that way, it reads a bit like some classic romances from earlier decades. B.