Narrated by Susan Duerden
I remember reading the other two books in this trilogy several years ago, but for some reason hadn’t read the first, Potent Pleasures, so listening to this new audiobook version seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, it proved to be a disappointing experience overall, as the story relies too heavily on the fact that the main characters just don’t TALK to each other. The narration also leaves a lot to be desired, because, while there’s no doubting that Susan Duerden is a very accomplished vocal actress, some of her acting choices proved to be incredibly irritating – so much so that I was frequently tempted to abandon the book and listen to something else.
The story begins with our heroine, Lady Charlotte Daicheston, who is on the verge of her seventeenth birthday and her come-out ball, sneaking off to a masquerade with an adventurous friend. Very soon, she finds herself tempted out into the garden by a tall, dark, handsome stranger, whose kisses and caresses are so utterly thrilling that soon she’s on her back and completely ruined.
Alexander Foakes, Earl of Sheffield and Downs and his twin brother Patrick, are widely known throughout society as a couple of hellions. A few weeks after their brief appearance at Lady Charlotte’s coming out ball, they are packed off abroad by their father, who has grown tired of their continual carousing, roistering, and troublemaking.
We then skip ahead a few years, and Charlotte is twenty-two and still husband-less. It’s not for want of offers – she is the reigning belle of the ton and cuts quite a dash in society with her short-cropped curls and daringly cut gowns. When she meets Alex Foakes, who has recently returned from Italy with a one-year-old daughter in tow, she recognises him immediately as the man who took her virginity. He, however, doesn’t recognise her at all. He’d built himself up a picture of what his “garden girl” looked like behind her domino, even going so far as to have married a woman who resembled her and Charlotte’s short dark curls don’t fit the bill.
Even so, he is very much smitten. Initially, he had decided to look about him for a substitute mother for young Pippa, but the more he sees of Charlotte, the more intense his desire for her. Alex has returned home with more than a child, however. Rumours concerning his brief, unhappy marriage to a faithless Italian woman dog his footsteps, along with the gossip about the grounds upon which the marriage had been annulled – his (supposed) impotence.
Charlotte’s mother tries to explain the nature of Alex’s supposed “difficulties”, although as Charlotte has direct knowledge of his not-so-floppy-poppy, she’s unperturbed. She is, nonetheless, furious with him for not recognising the girl he ruined and is determined to reject his suit. The trouble is, she’s just as desperately attracted to him now as she was then – even more so now she is able to spend time with him and experience the full force of his seductive personality and witness his concern for his daughter.
Even on their wedding night, Alex doesn’t realise who Charlotte is. But he isn’t overly concerned about her lack of a maidenhead – until she inadvertently lets slip that she wasn’t a virgin. At that point Alex sees red – his disgust at being once more trapped into marriage with an unchaste woman clouding his judgement. When Charlotte tries to tell him that he’s the only man she’s ever slept with, he refuses to listen and storms off.
Fortunately, Alex soon comes to his senses and apologises to Charlotte for his behaviour, promising to trust her in future. She can’t resist him, forgives him, and the interrupted honeymoon is resumed, with Alex having quietly decided that his wife’s seducer must have been his twin. And you just know that the very fact of there being a twin brother waiting in the wings is going to cause even more trouble.
Potent Pleasures is one of Ms James’ earlier books, and I have to say, it shows. There’s a lot of head-hopping with some of the POVs belonging to very minor characters. There are pacing issues because, at some points in the book, there is just too much going on away from the central couple, and the two protagonists aren’t particularly engaging or well-developed characters. Charlotte has the potential to be quite interesting, what with her determination to remain unmarried, and her dedication to her painting, but once she falls under Alex’s spell she becomes sex-obsessed, starry-eyed and rather bland. As to the hero – there’s no denying Alex is a sexy, alpha male, but the way he treats Charlotte makes him difficult to like. He’s so pig-headed; he remembers deflowering a virgin (for the first and only time) several years ago, but because of his stupid insistence on believing his “garden girl” was a redhead, he is completely unable to believe she and Charlotte could be the same person. And because he abs-o-lutely-pos-i-tively did not have sex with her, it must have been Patrick. He blows up at her and calls her horrible names and won’t even listen to her version of events or consider that his is wrong. The one thing in his favour is that he does eventually admit to having been a complete wanker, but Charlotte still forgives him far too easily.
Unfortunately, the obvious holes in the plot and lack of strong characterisations in the book were only intensified in the audiobook version, because I didn’t particularly enjoy Susan Duerden’s narration. I’ve listened to her quite a lot, and have generally enjoyed her work; she’s an experienced performer, and is very good at bringing out the emotional content of the stories she reads, which is an important factor for me. She differentiates well between the characters, has a pleasantly modulated voice, and I’ve had some very favourable things to say about her work in the past. But here, I found that the vocal ticks I’ve noticed before – her rather sing-song style of delivery and her tendency to resort to a rather strained, throaty whisper for her male characters – really got on my nerves. In fact, at those points where Alex was supposed to sound sexy and seductive, the whispering just made me want to laugh, or cringe. And in turn, my issues with the performance only served to highlight my concerns with the pacing and plot. There are large chunks of the story in the first half of the book which are spent away from the two principals, and I found myself zoning in and out of those, only bringing my attention back when the main characters returned to the stage. Had I found the narration more engaging, I suspect I’d have been able to sustain my concentration for longer periods.
When it comes down to it, this isn’t an audiobook I feel I can recommend without some considerable reservation. The story is weak and the performance is flawed BUT, if you’ve enjoyed other audiobooks by this author/narrator team, and want to complete your collection, then you’re as likely to enjoy this as their other audios. If this is your first time listening to a book by Eloisa James, or to any historical romance, I’d say leave it alone and try something else.
Narration: C+ and Book Content: C
Unabridged. Length – 15 hours and 29 minutes