Narrated by Rosalyn Landor
One of the many things I love about audiobooks is that they’re a great way for me to catch up with older titles that, with the best will in the world, I’m unlikely to get around to reading for at least the next ten years or more. Another great thing is that it’s such a treat when books you’ve really wanted to listen to are finally recorded and made available. Last year – at long last – Mary Balogh’s popular Slightly series (originally published between 2003 and 2004) was given the audio treatment, and thankfully, production company, Tantor audio, had the very good sense to employ the incredibly talented Rosalyn Landor as narrator.
Book two in the series, Slightly Wicked is a variation on the Cinderella trope and while it’s perhaps a little clichéd, I enjoyed it and was reminded of how a truly great narrator can elevate a story so that it ultimately transcends the sum of its parts.
Our hero is Lord Rannulf, brother to the Duke of Bewcastle and one of the six Bedwyn siblings. He is on his way to visit his ailing grandmother, Lady Beamish, at Grandmaison Park when he comes across an overturned coach and stops to see what is to be done. The weather is inclement and Rannulf is travelling alone, so all he can really do is ride to the nearest town or village and send help and transport for the passengers as quickly as possible. A man with an eye for the ladies, Rannulf quickly spots a lovely, red-headed woman among the group and offers to take her with him to the inn; after all, someone has to be able to give clear instructions to the rescue party.
The woman introduces herself as Claire Campbell, an actress on the London stage who is taking a bit of a break. Rannulf tells her he is Mr Ralph Bedard, and they set off, both of them feeling an intense spark of attraction to the other and Rannulf, especially, thinking that this lovely armful of curvy, warm woman will provide a satisfying diversion for the night.
But just as Rannulf is concealing his true identity, so is Claire, who is actually Miss Judith Law, the daughter of an impoverished country parson. With her younger brother – who is their parents’ only son – living well beyond his means and beggaring his family in order to do so, Judith’s parents can no longer afford to support their whole family, so she is being sent to live with her aunt Effingham, where she will live out the rest of her life as an unpaid drudge with no prospects for love, marriage or a family of her own. So when the chance is offered her to spend the night with an attractive, charming man who desires her intensely, and knowing she is unlikely to ever again have the opportunity to experience passion, she decides to take it. Nobody will ever know, and it will be a memory she can cherish forever.
Of course, this is Romancelandia, so the idea that ‘nobody will ever know’ is doomed the moment it is thought or uttered. Because of course, ‘Claire’ and ‘Ralph’ are destined to meet again in their true guises.
Rannulf is his grandmother’s heir and he loves her dearly, but she is very ill, and he knows that the one thing he can do to ease her mind before she dies is to find a wife and set up his nursery. He is planning to tell her during this visit that he is now ready to do just that. Lady Beamish thinks that Julianne Effingham, the daughter of her neighbour might suit him, and Rannulf has no objections to offering for the girl if she proves agreeable.
When he escorts his grandmother to tea at nearby Harewood House, home of the Effinghams, Rannulf doesn’t at first take notice of the shabbily dressed woman who is obviously some sort of poor relation. Her clothes are ill-fitting, her hair is completely covered by an ugly cap – but when their gazes inadvertently meet, he’s shocked to the core to recognise Claire Campbell.
Learning of Judith’s true identity and realising that she is the daughter of a gentleman, Rannulf knows he must do the honourable thing, and proposes marriage. But Judith will have none of it; she has accepted her lot in life and that their fling was just that – and besides she doesn’t want to be anyone’s duty or to force a man to marry her. Rannulf is surprised at her rejection, but accepts it, and tries to focus instead on courting the lady his grandmother has suggested. The problem is that he can’t get Judith out of his mind or ignore the strength of the pull between them.
The story isn’t especially original, it’s true, but Ms. Balogh’s writing and characterisation is so strong that the familiarity of the plot doesn’t matter; what’s important is that the listener can feel the emotions experienced by the protagonists and understand their dilemmas. Rannulf is perhaps a little too good to be true, but he does show personal growth during the story because by the end he’s ready to settle and assume the responsibilities of the estate he will soon inherit because he wants to, not because he has to. Judith really has drawn life’s short straw; not only does she have to put up with the indignities heaped upon her by her awful relatives, she is going to have to watch the man she loves court her brattish cousin, and all of it through no fault of her own. She’s stoic and resigned to her fate, and I enjoyed the way that, with some assistance from Rannulf, she gradually comes to realise that she’s worth more and to stand up for herself and what she wants.
Rosalyn Landor is, quite simply, the best narrator of historical romances around. There are a few others who come close and whose narrations I enjoy very much, but she really is the perfect choice for Mary Balogh’s understated yet emotionally-charged prose. Her performances are technically flawless; her pacing is spot on, she hits all the right emotional notes and her character differentiation is superb because there is never any question as to which character is speaking at any given point. In the few scenes in this book which feature several male characters, it’s easy to distinguish between Rannulf, the jauntily voiced Alleyne and the far more serious – and imperious – Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle. All the female characters are similarly individualised. Judith’s ‘dual personality’ is given two slightly different vocal inflections, her aunt is portrayed using a suitably unpleasant, nasal tone and her cousin, Julianne an appropriately higher pitched, whiny timbre.
But it’s not just Ms. Landor’s technical ability that continues to impress me. She also gets right to the emotional heart of any given story, gets into the heads of the characters and clearly demonstrates her understanding of them and the journey they are undertaking. She’s a narrator who really understands what audiobook listeners want to hear when it comes to romance – and that’s not true of every narrator of romance out there.
While there are certainly a number of inconsistencies in the story – it’s quite difficult to accept Judith’s belief in her own unattractiveness, and the secondary plotline regarding the missing jewels is a little obvious, for example – I nonetheless enjoyed listening to Slightly Wicked, in no small part due to Rosalyn Landor’s excellent performance. The remaining books in the series are set for release over the next few months, and I’m sure they will be equally entertaining. I’ll certainly be snapping them up as soon as they become available.
Breakdown of Grade: Narration: A+ Content: B Running time: 11 hours 28 minutes