Narrated by Richard Armitage and Grace Grant.
I’ve enjoyed listening to several of Lauren Blakely’s light-hearted, sexy romances; they’re fun, easy listens, made moreso by the fact that they’re read by some of the best narrators in the business. Her latest story, Wanderlust, is set in Paris and boasts a British hero, so I was hoping a British narrator would be cast – and when the author announced it would be Richard Armitage, I, like many, was gobsmacked. While he’s narrated a number of audiobooks, he has not, other than a few abridged recordings of some Georgette Heyer titles, narrated a romance, so the fact that he’d signed on to narrate this Audible Original (which is available in audio only until the end of March) is A Big Deal.
Wanderlust is fairly typical Blakely fare; steamy, flirty and low-angst, it tells the story of an American in Paris – Joy Danvers Lively – who relocates from her home in Texas to take up a one year secondment to the Paris offices of the cosmetics company for which she works. She’s excited about the challenge facing her, and delighted at the prospect of living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities; she doesn’t speak the language, but she’s trying her best with the aid of a phrase book and has read extensively about what the city has to offer.
Her first morning, she’s in the bakery close to her hotel and mangles the pronunciation of the item she’s asking for when the man in front of her quietly corrects her so she can obtain what she wants. He apologises – says it’s habit – and Joy is surprised to discover, when he speaks to her in English, that he’s not French, but British. Outside, they carry on a flirtatious conversation during which they play at guessing each other’s names, ending up with Archie (for Archibald) and Judy. They’re about to tell each other their real names when Joy’s phone rings and ‘Archie’, deciding he’s de trop, waves goodbye and leaves.
Griffin Thomas has been working in Paris as a translator for the past year, and, once he receives the fat bonus promised him on completion of his last contract, will have saved enough money to be able to leave Paris and travel to Indonesia, where he plans to run a marathon, travel around the islands and then, perhaps travel more extensively. So he’s pissed off when his boss at the translation agency tells him that the company Griffin had worked for can’t afford to pay him the bonus. This screws up his plans somewhat as it means he’ll have to stay in Paris a bit longer to earn the money he needs, but luckily, another job comes along which will see him working for a cosmetics and fragrance company as a translator for a new member of staff who has just arrived from the US.
Griffin is waiting to meet his new client, when he spots ‘Judy’ across the street; pleased to have a chance to see her again (and this time determined to get her phone number) he calls out to her and they talk briefly before realising – oops – that ‘Judy’ is ‘Archie’s’ client. The news that they’re to be colleagues immediately puts the brakes on their flirtation; ‘Archie’ and ‘Judy’ could have got together to explore the intense attraction sparking between them, but Griffin and Joy cannot.
And… er… that’s about it, plotwise. The romantic conflict is based almost entirely on this notion that Griffin and Joy can’t work together and become involved, and it’s just plain flimsy. For one thing, they’re not employed by the same company and for another, Joy acknowledges at one point that there is no actual ‘non-fraternisation’ policy, so their self-imposed ‘hands off’ rule makes no sense. Especially as they eventually give up resisting each other and have all the hot monkey sex anyway.
Fortunately, there is another – much more interesting – part of the set-up which provides an element of conflict that is not quite so easily resolved. Griffin is gradually working his way through the bucket-list he and his younger brother, Ethan, devised just before Ethan died a year earlier. The brothers were very close and Griffin is determined to carry out Ethan’s last wishes, one of which is the marathon in Indonesia and then the world travel. So Griffin knows that his time with Joy has an expiration date; but he also knows the unpredictability and fleetingness of life, and is determined to make the most of his time with her. This aspect of the story is more convincing and terribly poignant. It’s true that Griffin could easily change his mind about leaving Paris, but he is conflicted, and Ms. Blakely handles this part of the story very well, especially near the end when Griffin finally realises what Ethan had been trying to tell him.
When I mentioned the idea of reviewing Wanderlust to our esteemed publisher*, her reaction was:
“Richard Armitage, huh. He makes you Brit chicks nuts!”.
To which my response was:
“He does the same for you Yankee Gals.”
Of course, his presence as co-narrator of this story is a big draw, and also of course, he does a terrific job. Wanderlust is narrated in the style common to many contemporary romances, in that the male narrator narrates the hero’s PoV and the female narrator the heroine’s. This means that both performers have to be able to convincingly portray members of the opposite sex and get to exercise their facility for accents – and I’m happy to say that both Mr. Armitage and Ms. Grant don’t disappoint on either count. I’ve listened to Grace Grant a few times in the past and have always enjoyed her performances. Her pacing is good, she differentiates very well between the various characters, and her husky, mezzo-range voice enables her to sustain a deeper pitch to portray the male characters without sounding strained. Her interpretation of Griffin is extremely good and she does a pretty good job with his English accent, too, although it does slip here and there.
Richard Armitage is fabulous as Griffin; it’s not just his lovely voice that captivates, he also brings a real sense of warmth and depth to the character and his vocal acting is superb. You can hear the laughter in his voice when called for, and he picks up on even the smallest emotional nuance, bringing Griffin to life as a fully rounded individual. It’s an excellent performance all round – and in case you’re wondering, he throws himself into the naughtier moments with gusto, so make sure you’re not driving or operating complex machinery when you get to those points in the listen or you may run the risk of serious injury! Unlike Ms. Grant, however, he doesn’t really use pitch to differentiate between characters, opting instead to differentiate by means of timbre and accent. This means that the women in the story are pitched in the same register as the men for the most part, although fortunately, there is no difficulty in distinguishing between them.
Both narrators also do a tremendous job when it comes to the French-accented English spoken by many of the secondary characters. It could be so easy to slip into an exaggerated, ‘Inspector Clouseau’ type of comedy accent, but neither does that and those characters sound exactly as they should. The one thing I thought was a bit strange, though, was that although Griffin’s mother is French, Mr. Armitage doesn’t give her a French accent; she only appears twice, so it’s not a big deal, but it still seemed odd.
To sum up, while the narration is fabulous, the story isn’t, and I think that if I’d read the book, I’d have been quite bored. The author’s descriptions of Paris and Parisian life are great, Griffin and Joy have terrific chemistry and Richard Armitage and Grace Grant are superb narrators – but those things can’t save what is, essentially, a mediocre story. I suspect many will be listening to Wanderlust because of Mr. Armitage’s involvement, and if you’re in it for that gorgeous voice pouring naughty things into your ears, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But if you want a good story as well… you probably will be.
Breakdown of Grade: Narration: A Content: C
Running Time: 8 hrs 46 mins (includes bonus interview with the author at the end).
* I may or may not have gone and immediately started watching North and South again after reading Caz’s review. (Dabney)