Charming the Shrew
The plot of Charming the Shrew certainly wouldn’t win any prizes for originality, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the audiobook about a hero-in-disguise and the intelligent and sharp-tongued woman with whom he is forced to undertake a wintry journey.
Tayg Munro is the heir to the chiefdom of his clan of Culrain. Having spent a year away fighting with King Robert (the Bruce), Tayg returns home to a hero’s welcome. He wants nothing more than to be left to his own devices for a while and to perhaps take advantage of the many invitations he receives from the willing women of the clan.
But that is not to be. Following the death of his brother, Tayg’s parents are, more than ever, concerned about ensuring the safety of the clan by seeing Tayg married and producing sons of his own. He is adamant that he is not ready to marry and his mother equally determined to find him a bride. His father tells him that he cannot assume his position and duties as his heir until Tayg has found himself a wife. Stalling for time, Tayg undertakes a mission for the King, thinking that the journey will give him an opportunity to escape his mother’s demands and afford him a chance to look for a wife on his own terms.
Catriona MacLeod is known far and wide as the “shrew of Assynt” because of her sharp tongue and quick temper. Her eldest brother is planning to force her into an unwanted marriage with the chief of a neighbouring clan, and she has nobody to turn to for help. Desperate, she runs away, intending to make her way to her aunt’s house and thence, perhaps, to a convent, as that may be the only way she can avoid marriage to a man she detests.
She meets Tayg (who has decided to travel in the guise of a wandering bard) by accident following her flight and, with severe weather settling in, she is forced to accept his help to find shelter and food. He discovers she’s unpleasant company, thinking she deserves her shrewish reputation, and hopes to be able to part ways with her as soon as possible.
He changes his mind when Catriona unwittingly tells him something which makes him realise that her brothers are plotting against the king and instead, decides to take her with him as proof of the plot and as a hostage. He tells her nothing of this; knowing he is travelling to meet with the king, she is happy to tag along, as she believes Robert may be able to find her a husband more to her liking. Perhaps someone like Tayg of Culrain, warrior and hero of whose bravery and prowess in battle songs are sung and tales are told throughout the Highlands.
One of the things I particularly enjoy about “road trip” stories is the time allowed the author to develop her leads and their relationship without too much extraneous action or too many other characters crowding in, and Ms. Witting has certainly made good use of the trope in this story. As they travel together, Tayg’s opinions about Catriona begin to change as he learns more about what has caused her to be so prickly and quick to anger; she begins to see that perhaps her behaviour has not been as it should and tries hard to listen more and to think before she speaks.
The romance between the two develops quite naturally and at a good pace. Tayg is not your normal super-alpha Highland chieftain; he’s charming and funny and, for the most part, accepts Catriona for what and who she is and is proud of her independence and determination.
Catriona is perhaps a little more of a stereotypical character, a woman who has suffered humiliation at the hands of those who should have protected her. She has developed a hard shell to keep from finding herself in that situation again, but she is not too proud to change her ways or to admit to her feelings for her handsome young bard. I did have some issues with her behaviour towards the end of the novel, when she seemed to suddenly turn into an even more stereotypical romantic heroine who couldn’t make up her mind and was then determined to push the hero away because she wasn’t good enough for him; although other than that, I thought she was fairly likeable.
As I said at the beginning of this review, the plot isn’t especially original, but I’ve got nothing against an unoriginal storyline provided it’s well-told and well-written, as is the case here. Both protagonists are strongly and consistently characterised and the author’s depiction of the Highland winter was very evocative.
While Ralph Lister is a very experienced narrator, I believe this book to be his first foray into the romance genre. He has a pleasant, slightly husky baritone which is expressive and very pleasant to the ear and I enjoyed his narration very much. His reading was well-paced and his enunciation clear, although I did have a number of issues with his character portrayals, in particular the female roles.
Mr Lister did raise the pitch of his voice to portray the heroine – not overmuch – but it seemed that almost everything she said, she shouted, even in the more romantic scenes. I don’t know if it was because sustaining the higher pitch was a strain or if it was a conscious acting choice. In any case, it really didn’t work for me. I know that Catriona is supposed to sound “shrewish” – however that doesn’t mean that she shouts all the time.
Another issue was the one of accents. I know I frequently discuss the authenticity (or otherwise) of different British accents in the audiobooks I listen to, but it’s something that’s really important to me. If I’m supposed to be listening to a Scotsman and yet he sounds like an Irishman, I’m going to find it irritating and it will take me out of the story completely.
As soon as the Scottish characters started speaking, I realised that I wasn’t going to be listening to a performance where the accents sounded either consistent or authentic. I can adjust my expectations for that and did so. Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Scottish accents throughout were distinctly “iffy” and sometimes a character would begin a sentence sounding Scottish and end it sounding Irish. There are definite similarities between those accents yet they’re also distinctly different. Also, Mr Lister didn’t seem to have quite decided where to pitch Tayg, as much of the time, he sounded rather high-pitched, which didn’t really fit with the picture of the brawny Highland warrior the author had drawn. His portrayal of Tayg worked best when he kept his voice closer to his natural register and used a softer tone than the harder-edged one he employed in conjunction with the higher pitch.
One last thing – it sounded as though the narrator constantly mispronounced the heroine’s name as “Cat-ri-OH-na”, rather than “Catr-EE-o-na”, which is the way I’ve always thought the name was pronounced.
Despite those reservations, I did enjoy Charming the Shrew and would definitely consider listening to more of Ralph Lister’s work. I think he’s an excellent reader and welcome his addition to the ever-expanding stable of romance narrators although he needs to re-think the vocalisations of his heroines in any future work in this genre.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: C+ and Book Content: B-
Unabridged. Length – 10 hours 44 minutes