My Beautiful Enemy
I have to state upfront, that I’m a Sherry Thomas fangirl of immense proportions. I’ve loved each and every one of her books (including her recent YA titles) and take delight in her skillful storytelling, her wonderful prose, the complexity of her characterisations, the angst and ultimately, the superb way her romances unfold and the depth of the connections she creates between her heroes and heroines.
I hate to say this, My Beautiful Enemy didn’t quite work for me. Many of the things I’ve mentioned above are undoubtedly present in the story. The prose is beautiful, the hero and heroine share a deep connection, and the author’s descriptions of the sights and sounds of the unfamiliar landscapes of Chinese Turkestan are incredibly evocative, putting the listener right there with the characters. I also very much enjoy the flashback technique Ms Thomas employs – it’s a device she uses often and to great effect.
I suspect, however, that this is a book best experienced in print. Normally, when I enjoy a book, I will then look for an audio version so I can experience it again in a slightly different way; if I’m lucky and the narrator is good, I will enjoy it even more. In the case of My Beautiful Enemy however, I hadn’t read the book prior to listening to the audio, but I will now be turning to the printed edition because I suspect it is a much better story than the audiobook leads me to believe.
In 1891, Catherine Blade, illegitimate daughter of an English Diplomat and a Chinese courtesan, is on a steamer ship travelling to England. During a terrible storm, she is attacked by the villain of the piece, Lin, who has been hunting her for years, and it’s during that early scene that the listener gets the first glimpse of Catherine’s – whose real name is Ying-Ying – deadly martial arts skills when she both fights off Lin and rescues one of the ladies on board. Following this, Catherine is kind of “adopted” by the lady and her friend, who decide to sponsor her introductions in England.
Immediately upon her arrival in the company of Mrs Chase and Mrs Reynolds, Catherine is stunned to see the man with whom she had fallen in love more than eight years previously. Following a passionate and brief affair, they had parted on bad terms and Catherine believes she killed him, but here he is, alive, well, and handsomer than ever – and engaged to Mrs Chase’s beautiful daughter.
Back in 1883, twenty-one year-old Leighton Attwood is a British spy disguised as a Persian jewel-merchant as he travels throughout the East gathering information. On one such journey through Chinese Turkestan, he encounters a cocky young man he immediately realises is a woman. Intrigued, he suggests they travel together for safety and companionship, and although they never learn each other’s names, a connection is forged between them, one so strong that when they part, they discuss the possibility of finding each other again in a year’s time.
Even though both Leighton and Ying-ying know that it is extremely unlikely that they will ever meet again, both of them nonetheless make their way to their agreed rendezvous, hoping against hope that the other will be there. En route, Leighton rescues Ying-ying from a vicious group of bandits and cares for her injuries, which is when he finally owns up to the fact that he’s always known she was a girl. From there, their relationship progresses quickly, in the manner of people who live dangerous lives never knowing if the next day could prove to be their last.
Despite its speed, the romance is beautifully written, and their inevitable parting is utterly heartbreaking. But the problem with the audio version is that, while the words are there, the emotions just… aren’t. Leighton has some truly heart-melting speeches which are read as though they are part of a shopping list. The love scenes in the book are not explicit, but there’s an underlying sensuality to them that is completely absent in the audio; these are just two of the factors which led to its being rather a disappointment overall.
Charlotte Anne Dore is a new-to-me narrator, although she has a number of narrations to her credit at Audible. She has a pleasant, slightly husky voice, and she performs the narrative fairly well for the most part, and speaks at a good pace. There are, however, a number of mispronunciations throughout, as well as more than a few occasions where she trips over a word (or seems about to do so) or where she appears to have run out of breath part-way through a phrase, giving it rather an odd inflection overall.
Ms Dore differentiates fairly well between the characters, but I really didn’t like her portrayal of Leighton much of the time. Her vocal range is not wide, and she has opted to portray him at the very lowest end of it; she sounds as though she is struggling to maintain the lower pitch. This has the unfortunate effect of making him sound unattractive and somewhat pompous. It is also detrimental in the more romantic moments, which are lacking in emotional intensity.
The story itself is somewhat of a departure from Ms Thomas’ other historical romances, too, as the romance in the book is just one element of a much more wide-ranging story and not the primary focus. Catherine has been sent to England to locate two precious jade tablets and return them to China. Lin is on her trail, and she has also to contend with her feelings for Leighton and the fact of his engagement. Ms Thomas’ exploration of the Oriental mindset is fascinating and both central characters are complex and fully-rounded. My issues again relate to the narration, which just didn’t engage me sufficiently to carry me through those sections of the story where I found myself zoning in and out (like the fighting sequences).
All in all, My Beautiful Enemy is a prime example of what happens to a good story matched with the wrong narrator. One can’t completely blame Ms Dore – she was engaged to do a job and has, I am sure, done it to the best of her ability. So I’m chalking this one up as a misfire, and going back to read the print version instead in the hope I will find the Thomas magic is present after all.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: C- and Book Content: B
Unabridged. Length – 9 hours 25 minutes