I enjoyed reading Joanna Shupe’s recent Knickerbocker Club series, named for the group of wealthy, powerful men determined to make their mark on late nineteenth century New York. The author did a terrific job in those books with her descriptions of the city’s Gilded Age – which hasn’t been used very often as a setting for historical romance – so I was pleased to discover that her new series – The Four Hundred – is set in the same place and time period. A Daring Arrangement, the first book, sees the daughter of an English earl, who has been sent to America in disgrace, entering into a false betrothal with a self-made New York businessman whose name is a byword for scandal.
Lady Honora – Nora – Parker was caught by her father, the Earl of Stratton, in the arms of the young man she hopes to marry, a penniless artist. Believing the man to be a fortune hunter, the earl immediately sent Nora to stay with her aunt and uncle in New York in the hope that she will forget her swain and find a suitable husband there. But Nora has other ideas. If word gets back to her father that she has made a most inappropriate alliance, he is sure to summon her home immediately – and Nora thinks she has found just the man in Julius Hatcher, a man as famous for his business acumen as he is infamous for the reputation for fast living which regularly earns him column inches in the gossip sheets.
She manages to sneak into the party Hatcher is hosting for his thirtieth birthday, and wastes no time in asking him to pose as her fiancé, offering in return to make sure he is introduced into the best circles of society, something he has so far been unable to achieve. Julius is more than three sheets to the wind at this point, but manages to agree to her proposal before promptly passing out.
Julius Hatcher – a mathematical genius who has an unrivalled talent for reading the markets and who has worked hard for his success – has his own reasons for agreeing to Nora’s plan. Since the death of his father thirteen years earlier, he has been trying to discover the identities of the three society gentlemen who cheated Warren Hatcher in an investment deal and ruined him, leading him to take his own life. Julius plans to punish the men for what they did – but has so far not been able to find them. All he knows is that they were men from the upper echelons, the strata of society to which no amount of money will gain him access. But his engagement to an earl’s daughter will certainly open doors that have been closed to him before, and he is determined to take full advantage of it to find out as much as he can. The problem is that his need for society’s acceptance is diametrically opposed to Nora’s desire to cause as much scandal as she can in order to get sent home, and she can’t understand why they aren’t the cause of the sort of gossip that will quickly cross the Atlantic.
I enjoy a good fake-relationship story, and this is a very good one, although there are a few things about it that didn’t quite work for me. Ms. Shupe’s descriptive prose is vivid, putting the listener firmly in the glittering ballrooms and the sordid underbelly of late nineteenth century New York, and she laces the slow-burn romance with plenty of sexual tension and develops it beautifully. Julius is a gorgeous hero; handsome, sexy and highly intelligent, he’s quick to work out Nora’s reasons for wanting a fake fiancé and is determined to stop her from throwing away her reputation – but it’s hard to believe that he could possibly be so dreadful a scoundrel as we’re supposed to think he is. What we get from the text is a hard-working, conscientious young man who has worked his way up from nothing, and who fully understands the workings of society. He does suggest to Nora that his lady companions were always the points of interest to the press – not him – but it doesn’t quite convince. He’s also yet another marriage-shy bachelor who believes relationships only lead to disappointment – although once we’ve met his mother, it’s easier to understand his mindset! Nora is an intelligent and spirited young woman, but she veers close to the TSTL once or twice, especially when she insists on Julius taking her to places that could be dangerous just to try to generate media attention. She puts herself and others at risk so she can further her plans to marry a man who is clearly (to the listener) only interested in her money. Fortunately, she does learn from her mistakes and come to see that she has misplaced her affection; she exhibits character growth throughout the story which makes it possible to – if not forgive, then overlook – some of her more selfish actions. The subplot concerning Julius’ search for his father’s former associates is well done, with a nicely executed twist towards the end, but my biggest issue with the story is with the overly dramatic ending. The author throws in a high-stakes, hero/heroine-in-peril set-piece, that feels contrived and as though it doesn’t quite belong, and I found it rather jarring.
I chose to review this audiobook because I enjoyed A Daring Arrangement in print and wanted to experience it again. Roxy Isles isn’t a narrator I’ve come across before, and an Audible search reveals only two audiobooks listed for her, the most recent one released in 2012. This leads me to suspect that Roxy Isles may be a pseudonym; certainly, her technical ability – her pacing is generally good, her enunciation is clear and she (again generally) differentiates well between characters – would indicate she’s an experienced narrator. The problem, though, is that I’m not sure she’s the right narrator for this particular book.
On the positive side, her characterisation of Nora is excellent. She speaks with a slightly clipped, rather bright tone that immediately indicates both her youth and status, although the downside to this is that her speech is sometimes rather rushed. Ms. Isles doesn’t trip over any words, but she does deliver Nora’s dialogue a little too quickly on occasion. She differentiates well between all the female characters, and does a good job in conveying their various traits; Nora’s aunt is softly spoken and a little more considered in her manner, marking her clearly as a kind, intelligent woman, while the snide, somewhat flat tone she uses to portray Julius’ mother befits the woman’s dour, disapproving nature.
She is less successful when it comes to the men, however, and I’m not completely sure if this is due to the fact that her vocal range isn’t that large in terms of pitch, or if it’s because almost all the male characters in the story are American and her accent leaves something to be desired. (I dislike UK historicals performed in American accents and I’m just as critical when American characters are performed by British narrators who are unable to produce a realistic American accent). The best I can say about her portrayal of Julius is that it’s okay; the first time I heard him speak I winced, although it got better as either Ms. Isles settled in, or I got used to it. She doesn’t lower the pitch of her voice much, but she decreases the volume so that I sometimes found it difficult to work out what he was saying. Many of the older gentlemen are performed in a tone I can only describe as ‘shouty’, sometimes leading to large jumps in volume between them and Julius; on one or two occasions it was almost painful to my ears.
With those reservations expressed, however, I would still say that the audiobook of A Daring Arrangement is worth listening to. Someone like Saskia Maarleveld or Kate Reading, whose American and English accents are equally perfect, would no doubt have been a better fit – but Ms. Isles doesn’t do a bad job, by any means. It’s a more than decent performance with a lot of good things going for it – and as I said above, her portrayal of Julius grew on me. The story is very enjoyable, the central characters have strong chemistry and the love scenes are sensual and well-performed. I’m looking forward to the next in the series, A Scandalous Deal, in 2018.
TITLE: A Daring Arrangement
AUTHOR: Joanna Shupe
NARRATED BY: Roxy Isles
GENRE: Historical Romance
STEAM FACTOR: Glad I had my earbuds in
REVIEWER: CazBuy A Daring Arrangement by Joanna Shupe on Amazon