Narrated by Mary Jane Wells
I’m not a big fan of anthologies or novellas in general, because I find there are few authors who really understand how to use the shorter form to greatest effect, and I most often come away from them feeling a bit disappointed. And anthologies tend to be uneven; there will usually be one really good story and the others will be of lesser, variable quality. So why did I listen to this one? A look at the narrator’s name will answer that question. Mary Jane Wells can make even average material enjoyable to listen to, and while two of the stories here do fall into the average category, the other two – from Julia Quinn and Laura Lee Guhrke – definitely transcend that qualification. Each story in Four Weddings and a Sixpence features one of a group of four friends who, while at school, find an old sixpence in a mattress and, based on the words of the old rhyme:
Something old, something new
Something borrowed, something blue… and a silver sixpence for your shoe
– decide to keep the sixpence on the chance that it may lead them to true love.
Something New by Stefanie Sloane – C-
This is the weakest tale of the four, and tells the story of Miss Anne Brabourne, who needs to marry by the time she is twenty-one or be packed off to the country by her uncle. (The reason for this is never explained). Her birthday is just weeks away, and there are no suitors on the horizon who meet her exacting requirements for a husband. Having watched the ups and downs of her parents’ tempestuous love match, Anne doesn’t want to marry for love, and she doesn’t intend to cede her independence, so she wants a man who will do as he’s told and leave her to get on with her life on her own terms. Escaping from yet another crowded ballroom one night, she finds herself in a darkened library and pouring out her woes to the dog stretched out on the rug by the fire. Naturally, she doesn’t see the dog’s gorgeous owner sitting in the shadows straight away, but after her initial shock at being overheard, Anne finds herself unburdening herself to him about her predicament. Rhys Hamilton, the Duke of Dorset, is immediately attracted to the lovely young woman and wonders about her strange requirements for marriage – and at their next meeting, offers to help her to find a suitable husband.
Of course it’s obvious where this is going. Their courtship – because that’s what it is, even if neither of them sees it as one – is charming and the more time they spend together, the more Rhys comes to realise that he doesn’t want anyone to marry Anne but himself. I did like the fact that he’s the first to confess the truth of his feelings, but the ending is rather contrived and there’s a completely out of the blue and unnecessary sex scene at the end that caused me to lower my grade quite considerably. Firstly, something happens which causes Anne to go rushing off to Rhys’ house – and not only is she sent off on her own, without a chaperone, it’s her chaperone who sends her there, which was too great a strain on my credulity. Once she’s there, declarations are made, intentions declared – and suddenly they’re shagging up against the wall of Rhys’ study. It seems to have become de riguer to include sex scenes in novellas these days, but so many of the ones I’ve read seem to have been just tacked on for the sake of it. And I can honestly say that even though this one is not at all explicit, it’s so inappropriate and jarring that I actually felt uncomfortable listening to it and really wish it had been omitted.
Something Borrowed by Elizabeth Boyle – C
The next recipient of the sixpence is Cordelia Padley, who has recently returned to England from India, where she lived with her father since leaving school until his recent death. Her financial situation is not good, her father having lost a lot of money in unwise investments and speculations, and Cordelia knows she needs to marry – but she doesn’t want to rush into it, so to put off the machinations of her matchmaking aunts, she invents a fiancé in order to give herself some breathing space. But her lie looks likely to backfire when she realises that she will be expected to bring her betrothed to Anne’s wedding, so she reaches out to her oldest friend and neighbour, Christopher Talcott, the Earl of Thornton and asks if he will pose as her fiancé for the duration of their stay at Hamilton Hall, where the wedding is to take place.
Cordelia and Christopher – or Kipp, as he is known – were inseparable during childhood, always getting into mischief together and planning all the adventures they would have and the places they would see when they were older. They haven’t seen each other since Cordelia left school and went to live in India, and Kipp’s situation has changed greatly in that time – as the second son, he never expected to inherit, but his older brother died and left him as heir to a very impoverished title. Now he is the Earl and needs to marry money if he is to rebuild his estate and the family finances. When Cordelia appears, he is on the verge of proposing to the daughter of a wealthy Cit – but he can’t refuse to help his oldest friend, and decides his responsibilities can wait for a few days. A week at most. Or maybe two.
It’s clear that the strong feelings Cordelia and Kipp had for each other years ago have never really disappeared, and their romance is sweet – if slightly dull. There are some nicely poignant moments in the story, however, such as when Kipp tells Cordelia of his love for his home and her realisation that she’s never really had one, and I liked that the couple decided they were better together and prepared to work hard to restore the estate, even though money would be tight. But the author then proceeded to wave a magic wand over that and fix it, which rather spoiled the ending for me.
Something Blue by Laura Lee Guhrke – B+
After two rather average stories, we come to Something Blue, which is easily the best of the set and my personal favourite. Lady Elinor Daventry is next to receive the lucky sixpence and she’s going to need it, given she is planning to marry a man she doesn’t love in order to prevent her beloved father being wrongly accused of treason. Six months earlier, her relationship with Lawrence Blackthorne ended acrimoniously when he uncovered evidence that Lord Daventry had been profiteering during the war and was given the task of building the case against him by the Home Office.
During the wedding celebrations of his friend, the Earl of Thornton, Lawrence overhears Elinor and her friends talking about the sixpence and Elinor’s plans to marry Viscount Bluestone whose father, the Duke of Wilchelsey is on the Home Office committee, and whom she believes will be able to prevent her father being prosecuted. Shortly after this, Lawrence confronts Elinor and manages to steal the sixpence – and with it, it would seem, all of Elinor’s luck, too.
It’s obvious that Elinor and Lawrence are still head-over-heels in love, but Elinor adores her father and refuses to hear a word against him – and Lawrence is determined to expose him as a traitor whose armaments company provided shoddy goods to the army which led to hundreds or thousands of avoidable deaths. It seems that the breach between them is unbridgeable.
I really enjoyed this side of the story, as it adds depth and a real sense of there being more at stake than whether our protagonists will find true love. The author very skilfully shows how Elinor slowly begins to doubt her convictions and her father, even though she is outwardly steadfast and determined to thwart Lawrence however she can. And his reactions to her are those of an honourable but caring man who is torn between the woman he loves and doing what he knows to be right. Both characters are fully-rounded, the chemistry between them is terrific and Lawrence is a gorgeous hero – my favourite of the set.
… and a Sixpence in her Shoe by Julia Quinn – B
Our final heroine is Beatrice Heywood, and while she is pleased that her three friends have found love, her logical, scientific mind is sceptical about the Power of the Sixpence. But she accepts her turn nonetheless, even though walking about with it in her shoe is not at all comfortable!
Bea lives with her two elderly aunts near Oxford and is walking in town one day when she inadvertently bumps into someone on the street. The gentleman is handsome, with eyes the colour of the sky – or rather, eye, as she then notices he wears an eyepatch over his right eye. He steadies her, rudely tells her to watch where she’s going in future and walks off.
Lord Frederick Grey-Osbourne was unnerved by the look on the young woman’s face when she noticed his eye patch; it is something he has become accustomed to seeing since the carriage accident that disfigured him and he hates it. He reaches his destination – the local stationery shop – and is making his purchases when the woman who just ran into him enters the shop and asks to buy a notebook. The pair starts talking and realise that they are both interested in the sciences, something Frederick is surprised to discover about a woman, but which he likes very much. Both Bea and Frederick feel a pull of attraction towards each other, which Frederick particularly welcomes as he hasn’t felt anything like it since his accident. They meet again the next day while Bea is out shopping, and again when Frederick calls on her at home, and the author does a terrific job of showing Frederick’s crusty, protective exterior gradually crumbling beneath Bea’s enthusiasm, her genuine affection and different way of looking at things.
The final scene, in which he takes her to visit the Radcliffe Observatory at the university (somewhere Bea could never have gained admittance to on her own) is a beautifully romantic gesture and provides a fitting end to this romance between two like-minded, lovely people.
Mary Jane Wells does sterling work in each story, differentiating well between all the characters and adding an appropriate degree of emotion and humour to both narrative and dialogue. I was pleased to note that the four heroines all sound different and are portrayed consistently throughout; by which I mean, she doesn’t ‘reset’ to a standard Heroine Voice for each story. The same is true of the heroes, with her performance of Lawrence being my favourite – he’s the sexiest of the bunch and she picks up on that, making him sound appropriately attractive and dynamic. Her pacing is spot-on and the fact that she performs the ‘stage directions’ in a story – if someone is said to laugh, then she laughs, or if they emit a heavy sigh, then she sighs – helps to add up to the sort of naturalistic performance I’ve come to expect from her.
It’s also true that she’s one of those narrators who can elevate average material to something that holds the listener’s interest, and that’s certainly true of the first two novellas in this anthology, which I may well have skipped had I been reading rather than listening. I did notice the odd mispronunciation here and there, but otherwise, this is another very strong performance from Ms. Wells, and if you’re in the mood for a something you can listen to in short chunks, Four Weddings and a Sixpence is worth your consideration.
Book Content: Something New – C- / Something Borrowed – C+ / Something Blue – B+ /And a sixpence – B – Overall content grade: B-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: None
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Harper Audio
Four Weddings and a Sixpence was provided to AudioGals by Harper Audio for a review.