Splendid, the first book in Julia Quinn’s Blydon trilogy (the others being Dancing at Midnight and Minx) was issued in 1995 and is Ms. Quinn’s first published work. I’ve read many of her most recent books, but not her earliest ones, so I was interested to listen to this to find out how it would compare. Naturally, it’s not as polished as her later work, although the writing is confident and there are flashes of the humour for which she has become renowned. On the downside though, the storyline is rather predictable (and goes off the rails a bit towards the end), and the characters – outspoken American heiress, stuffy (but hot) duke, bluestocking cousin etc. – are rather stock-in-trade and never really transcend that. There’s nothing wrong with predictability in a romance – we know where it’s going to end up and who is going to end up with whom, after all – but there has to be something else that makes up for it, whether it’s characterisation, sub-plots or dialogue, but here, unfortunately, that’s not the case, and large portions of the book tend to drag while the hero and heroine – who are clearly crazy for each other – try to make up their minds about how they feel.
But by far the biggest impediment to the enjoyment of this story in audio is the narration. I don’t know what on earth Harper Audio was thinking when they engaged Lucy Rayner to narrate all three audiobooks in this series – were Rosalyn Landor and Mary Jane Wells unavailable? – but they’ve done themselves and one of their best-selling authors a serious disservice. I listened to Ms. Rayner a couple of months back in Kat Martin’s Bold Angel, and gave her narration a C grade, saying: sometimes her tone is overly harsh, and lacking in subtlety or expression. There were times I found myself wincing at obvious and painful overacting… and that her male voices were below par.
Sadly, those things are still true here, and the narration as a whole proved so difficult to listen to that it often distracted me from the story and I found myself having to rewind to listen to large chunks where I’d just zoned out.
Fortunately, however, the plot is fairly simple. Born in America to English parents, Emma Dunster is the heir to her father’s shipping empire and her dearest wish is to run the company someday. Given the story is set in 1816, that isn’t quite the done thing for a young woman, but Emma is clever, capable and determined to achieve her ambition. But for now, she’s just twenty and about to set out on a visit to her English cousins, the Blydons. Not long into her stay in London, she and her cousin Arabella (Bella) decide to avoid getting roped in to do the flower arranging for a ball by sneaking off to the kitchens. Both ladies are determined to help with the cooking, but before they can do that, Emma is despatched to fetch some eggs from the market, as they’ve run out. On her way back, Emma sees a young boy run into the path of an oncoming carriage and acts without thinking to push him aside. The little boy turns out to be the nephew of the Duke of Ashbourne, the wealthiest, handsomest and most eligible bachelor in the ton. Emma elects not to make the duke aware of her identity, seeing she’s dressed like a maid and doesn’t want her aunt to find out what she and Bella have been up to.
The duke, Alexander Ridgley, is naturally somewhat annoyed when he encounters “Meg, the maid” at the Blydon’s ball the next night and discovers Emma had lied to him. Having come in to wealth and title fairly young, he’s used to being a target for young ladies who want to become his duchess which has made him extremely cynical about women and their motives, and he is determined not to marry until he’s at least forty. But Emma’s fearless manner, her refusal to be intimidated by him and her fiery red hair and big, violet eyes (which are mentioned many, many times – too many) intrigue him and pretty soon, he’s head-over-heels in lust with her.
The development of their relationship is quite well done; they flirt and bicker, share stolen kisses (some of which are in her bedroom, which is a bit of a stretch of credibility for a Regency) and eventually both of them realise that they have fallen in love, but are not sure that their feelings are returned. Matters are precipitated however, when Emma’s cousin, Ned, incurs a large debt to the smarmy Lord Woodside, who has designs on Bella and a score to settle with Emma. Misunderstandings, burglary and a kidnapping ensue towards the end of the book, all of which feel rather rushed and contrived, and which caused me to lower the content grade somewhat. But to be fair, it was very difficult to grade this audiobook for content given the problematic narration.
I’ve tried to think of a better way to phrase it, but the best description I can come up with is that Ms. Rayner narrates with the slightly patronising tone that some use when reading to children. Her intonation is exaggerated and her enunciation is so perfect as to sound almost unnatural. Her tone is overly bright, she has an irritating “sing-song” inflection and many of her female characters are pitched too high, so they sound like excitable teenaged girls instead of young women. And she seems to think that injecting emotion into her voice equates with ascending to a pitch only audible by dogs and nocturnal animals. Her male voices are not very attractive either, and sound more like caricatures than characters. The secondary character of Lord Dunford (who is the hero of Minx) sounds rather like Eeyore and while she does a better job with Alex when he’s speaking normally, in moments that are meant to be romantic or sensual she makes him sound like a complete sleazebag. In chapter five when he and Emma are doing some serious face-sucking, Emma says: “What are you doing to me?” He replies “I’m making love to you” – and I wanted to crawl into a hole and cringe; the leer in his voice makes him sound like a pervert. When I got to the love scenes, I wanted to cover my ears – which wouldn’t have helped given I had earbuds in. In chapter twelve, Alex indulges Emma in a spot of *ahem* handiwork, and when she sighs her pleasure, she sounds like she’s hurt herself, and he, once more, sounds like a smarmy git. Then, during the first actual sex scene, Emma is almost screeching “Oh, Alex!” and sounds like she’s going to cry (not in a good way), and the whole thing is just… well, one of the most unromantic, cringe worthy sex scenes I’ve ever heard.
The reason I’ve given the narration a C- and not a lower grade is simply down to the fact that Ms. Rayner’s character differentiation is quite good and that the American accent she adopts for Emma sounds reasonably authentic and is consistent. Over the course of almost thirteen-and-a-half hours, I confess that I did get used to some of her less annoying vocal traits and found some portions of the book quite listenable, but her performance in so many of the key areas – the high pitch adopted for most of the female characters and the pervy portrayal of the hero in the romantic scenes for instance – is so off-putting that I really can’t rate it any more highly.
Fans of romance audiobooks in general and of Julia Quinn in particular have no doubt been waiting for these books to make it into audio format, but sadly, Splendid is the worst kind of disappointment and isn’t splendid at all. At least we can console ourselves with the fact that Recorded Books had the extreme good sense to employ the incomparable Rosalyn Landor to narrate the first five Bridgerton books. Do yourselves a favour; go and listen to those again and forget this ever existed.
Book Content: C+
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Harper Audio
Splendid was provided to AudioGals by Harper Audio for a review.