Mary Balogh’s 1992 novel Beyond the Sunrise boasts a storyline quite unlike those found in the other books of hers I’ve read in that it’s mostly plot, rather than character driven. That isn’t a criticism, however, because I enjoyed this new audiobook (narrated by Rosalyn Landor) very much. It isn’t without its problems, the principal of which lies with the heroine’s somewhat cavalier treatment of the hero and I suspect that had I been reading the book rather than listening to it, I might have found her difficult to like, but Ms. Landor is able to portray her with such empathy that even when I didn’t particularly like her actions, I was at the very least able to understand her and even feel sorry for her and angry on her behalf at situation in which she has been placed.
The bulk of the story takes place in Portugal and Spain in 1810, but the book opens eleven years earlier at the country seat of the Marquis of Quesnay, when we meet our two protagonists, who are then aged fifteen and seventeen. Jeanne is the daughter of the Comte de Levisse, a French emigré and Robert is the only – although illegitimate son – of the Marquess. During one idyllic summer, the young couple falls deeply in love, only to be cruelly separated by the Comte, who, recognising the strength of daughter’s feelings for a young man far below her in station, tells her that Robert has been boasting of his conquest and laughing behind her back at her gullibility. Jeanne believes her father’s lies and hides her true feelings behind the smiles and light-hearted gaiety that are to become one of many weapons in her arsenal of feminine appeal, and informs Robert that she had just been toying with him. After all, what possible interest could the daughter of a nobleman have in a bastard?
The story then moves ahead eleven years, to a ballroom in Lisbon where Captain Robert Blake of the 95th Rifles, recuperating from injuries received in the line of duty, is feeling ill-at-ease, and chafing to return to his regular duties. He is utterly stunned to see Jeanne – now the widowed Marquesa Joana das Minas – enter on the arm of a fellow officer, and all his feelings of adolescent rage and hurt come tumbling back. She, however, doesn’t recognise him at all.
Joana immediately senses that in Robert, she has found a man who is not going to succumb to her charms and fall at her feet, which naturally makes him something of a challenge. For his part, Robert is well aware of this fact, which makes him even more determined to keep his distance when he can and treat her with cold indifference when he can’t.
But the pair is thrown together by the Viscount Wellington, who sends Robert on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. Unbeknownst to the captain, Joana has been acting as a British agent for a number of years; having ties to England (her mother was English), France and Portugal (her late husband was Portuguese) means that she is able to move easily between the British forces, the Portuguese partisans and the French, who believe her to be a double agent. For the sake of the mission, Robert cannot be allowed to know all this, and Joana knows that there will come a point in their journey when she will have to act in such a way as to convince the French that she hates him – and that she will cause him to actually despise her in the process.
When Wellington’s plan is put into action, Joana plays her part so well that Robert is completely convinced by what he perceives as her betrayal of both her mother’s country and himself, and his sense of her duplicity is powerfully compounded by her long-ago treatment of him – so much so that even when she finally tells him the truth, he doesn’t believe her.
This is probably my main issue with the story – not so much that Robert can’t bring himself to trust Joana, but rather the way she insists on treating him, continuing her act as “the Marquesa”, the flirtatious, coquettish widow who treats men as her playthings – she even admits to herself that Robert’s distrust of her is not surprising given the way she treats him, yet she cannot abandon her act, feeling that should he realise how she really feels about him, he will break her heart. Another, smaller issue is that because there is a great deal of focus on what is undoubtedly a well-thought out and executed plotline, there is less emphasis on the development of the romance between the principals; the listener is expected to take it as read that these two still harbour strong feelings for each other, and the story is more about how they move through longing, betrayal and distrust to find one another again. Theirs is a tempestuous relationship – their inability to keep their hands off each other leading them to agree to be “frenemies-with-benefits” for the duration of their journey – but it also includes some moments of great poignancy, such as the one evening when they agree to forget everything and allow themselves a moment out of time.
In spite of my quibbles, this quickly became an audiobook I was reluctant to turn off, which was in no small part to Rosalyn Landor’s compelling narration. Her ability to get to the heart of a story and its characters never ceases to amaze me, her pacing and acting choices throughout the book are spot-on and her performance of the narrative is as emotionally resonant as her characterisations. In short, she once again delivers an absolutely flawless performance. She differentiates very effectively between all the main and secondary characters, utilising a variety of European accents when called for, all of them sounding authentic and never so thick that the listener has to work hard to make out the words beneath. I especially enjoyed her portrayal of Robert, who is tough, hard-edged and sexy, but with a well-hidden vulnerability which Ms Landor nonetheless finds and conveys with perfect subtlety.
There is one problem with the production that is in no way down to the performance – there are lots of pauses at odd moments which seem to be present for no discernible reason. (This happened as well in Garden of Lies also produced by Recorded Books). I looked through my print copy of Beyond the Sunrise to see if the pauses were breaks between paragraphs, but they are not. They became quite distracting as my listening progressed; one of them came right at an *ahem* important moment in a love scene, and took me right out of the moment! But while it was noticeable and more annoying at some times than at others, that fault didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the audiobook, which I’m strongly recommending to fans of the author, the narrator, and historical romance in general.
Grade: A- (Narration: A and Book Content: B+)
Unabridged Length – 14 hours