The Marigold Chain
Narrated by Alex Wyndham
So, so many people love The Marigold Chain (really, anything by Stella Riley) and for good reason. Her attention to detail – from the dialogue to the setting and time period to the clothing – everything is pitch perfect. However, The Marigold Chain is history dense and romance light, and I was a bit overwhelmed by the historical detail and large cast of secondary characters, and underwhelmed by the romance; I kept waiting and hoping for more scenes featuring the principal couple together, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The infrequency of their appearances as a couple – whether as friends, bickering enemies, partners, or ultimately, adoring husband and wife – diminished my pleasure in this complex and intriguing story. I found much to like in new-to-me narrator Alex Wyndham… except when he voices our heroine. I didn’t like his characterization of her anglo-French accent and it took me three-quarters of the book to adjust to it. So it’s a B with a caveat: If you love history with a side of romance, this might be a DIK for you. Otherwise, it might it fall shy.
The Marigold Chain is steeped in the events of Restoration London in 1666. A primer: Charles II sits on the throne and England is at war with both Holland and France. Against this backdrop, we meet Alex Deveril – a career soldier who’s spent the past fifteen years fighting – first on behalf of the crown and later as a mercenary – only to discover his birthright stolen away during his absence. To add insult to injury, the woman he hoped marry has pledged herself to another – wealthier – man. Oh, but she’s open to an affair. Alex isn’t. Angry, bitter, bored and drunk, he winds up at the card table. When the host stakes his step-sister as collateral late in the night, a drunken Alex can’t resist the challenge.
Chloe Hervaux has spent the past year fending off the lecherous advances of her odious step-brother. Discovering that he’s staked her as his collateral in a game of chance, she half-heartedly tries to convince him to retract the despicable bet; but after weighing her current situation against the possibility of something better from the handsome – albeit drunken – man playing against him, she permits the game to continue. When the stranger wins, she not-so reluctantly allows the inebriated victor to take her away from the drudgery of her daily life. When he stubbornly insists on marrying her, she doesn’t object.
Alex wakes to a painful hangover – and a wife. Chloe awakens to the realization that she’s free of her step-brother’s home, but that she might have taken advantage of her husband. After an awkward morning wherein they both have regrets, but discover they quite like the person they’ve married, and – for reasons neither is ready to disclose – neither one of them is in a hurry to end the marriage, they agree to pursue an annulment and remain married in name only.
If the first few chapters led you to believe this might be a simple marriage-of-convenience romance, let me set you straight. There’s nothing simple about this story or this pair – and the relationship simmers in the background, never gaining momentum until the final chapters. That Chloe is enamored of Alex, and that her affection turns to love as she gets to know him and his circle of friends, is clear early on. His feelings are decidedly less so (to him and to us). But the romance is merely the backdrop to the larger intrigue Ms. Riley introduces by means of her secondary characters – Alex’s friends and Charles’ court – which unfolds as Chloe and Alex adjust to married life.
Soon after Alex and Chloe meet, The Marigold Chain diverts into a secondary plot centered on Alex’s search, at the behest of Prince Rupert, for a traitor. Alex is revitalized by a renewed sense of purpose; he’s a charming, devilishly handsome, intelligent, and witty hero – but when the story opened, he was struggling and bitter. He’s used his anger and resentment to push his closest friends away, and although they despair over the man he’s become, they persist in waiting for their clever and dynamic friend to return. The hunt for the traitor refocuses Alex’s energies and attention not a moment too soon. Perhaps in less capable hands, Alex would be a polarizing figure; instead, Ms. Riley sympathetically conveys his frustration, whilst slowly revealing the man his friends know and love (and whom Chloe can’t resist). He’s gorgeous and frustratingly stubborn; he’s also loyal, brave and a wickedly talented sword fighter. Sardonically voiced by Mr. Wyndham, he’s an appealing, if slightly opaque, hero.
Meanwhile, Chloe finally finds a home. Tasked with managing the household, getting to know the circle of men Alex calls friends, and managing a husband who’s blindingly oblivious to her feelings, she establishes her own sense of identity. Before her marriage, she lived at the mercy of her step-brother, and it’s a delight to watch her so capably stand up to Alex and the challenges of her life – finding value and purpose in her surprise circumstances. Unfortunately, the author tries too hard to ‘sell’ us on Chloe. Everyone who meets her likes or loves her – even the King; friends, enemies… they all court her favor, and although I enjoyed her relationship with Alex (the little of it we’re privy to), she’s too perfect. From her marigold-coloured hair, beautiful form, impeccable taste, easy friendships with Alex’s motley cast of friends, and sharp insights into court and the villainous Sarah (Alex’s ex), Chloe is the perfect match for Alex… only he doesn’t know it until far too late in this story.
Alex Wyndham does a remarkable job narrating the story – his tone and voice are perfectly matched to the pace and flow of Ms. Riley’s words, and if not for his characterization of Chloe – which I found awkward, and akin to someone intensely whispering their displeasure – I’d only have accolades for his performance. Unfortunately, despite this story being largely about Alex and his pursuit of a traitor whilst married to a virtual stranger, it’s mostly told from Chloe’s point of view. The characterization grated and was at odds with my vision of this character, and I simply couldn’t settle into it. Fortunately, Mr. Wyndham’s portrayal of Alex and good friend Matt, are perfection. He nails them – and most of the secondary characters too.
Ms. Riley imbues The Marigold Chain with such a deep sense of time and period, it’s easy to fall into. I found myself curious and distracted (in a good way) by the historical events casually referenced and seamlessly interwoven into the various plotlines. From the search for a traitor, to the will-they-or-won’t-they stay together marriage, and the vast and compelling cast of secondary characters, The Marigold Chain is complex and engrossing. Unfortunately, the romance is not quite so satisfying.
Breakdown of Grade: Narration: B+ Content: B ~ Running Time: 10 hours 9 minutes