Narrator: Rebecca de Leeuw
Series: Turner #2
Published by Harlequin Enterprises on 10/1/11
Genres: Historical, Romance
Jessica Farleigh is a courtesan. No, not an “I’m secretly a virgin and after the hero is done being an ass-hat about my supposed whore-ishness he’s going to have to grovel” courtesan but an “I’ve had to make some hard choices and had a string of ‘protectors’ with whom I’ve *gasp* had a lot of sex” courtesan. Thrown out of the house and disowned at the age of fourteen after being “ruined” by a man who left her in London when he was done with her, Jessica was able to avoid a life on the streets but survived by trading her body and a large piece of her soul for the transient security offered by the men who set her up as their mistress. Emotionally numb and determined to never be another man’s lover, Jessica makes a bargain with her most recent protector – a man who wants the government position Mark Turner is being considered for. Jessica will seduce Mark and ruin his reputation and in return she will earn enough money to allow her to live a quiet life free from the control of men.
Mark Turner is a virgin. No, not a…well, I’m not sure there’s a precedent for male virgins in historical romances from the last ten years, let alone a trope I can reference. Author of The Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity, Mark has been knighted by the queen for “his contribution to popular morality”. Sir Mark is a man who has seen the tragic imbalance in consequences between women and men when it comes to “impurity” and has put forth male chastity as the solution. In an effort to escape his sudden fame, he has retreated to the countryside where he grew up but after encountering Jessica he finds his commitment to chastity sorely tested.
Who knew that when a courtesan set out to seduce a virgin, we actually would end up with both a rather good romance about two people who’ve been painfully molded by tragic events in their childhood as well as a pretty interesting discourse on male/female sexual politics? Neither Mark nor Jessica are simple one-dimensional characters. Mark isn’t an innocent or an idealist, he has simply chosen chastity as a way of ensuring he doesn’t become the source of someone’s ruin or pain. Jessica is neither a hooker with a heart of gold nor a woman who turns into a carefree spirit once she finds love. She has been irrevocably changed by circumstances and although she retains an inner well of hope, it’s about run dry and she’ll do what she has to in order to survive. As the two enter each other’s orbit and allow necessity and desire to pull them together, Mark is forced to learn that he can’t always be the knight in shining armor and sometimes ceding power is the only way to save someone. Jessica has to let go of her rage and fear and learn to fight for herself and take back her own power and control.
Only a few things about this story didn’t work for me, and they all arrived in the last quarter of the book. Jessica constantly thinking and saying something along the lines of “Surely you can see that one such as I can never be right for you” was a wearing refrain, despite understanding the social restrictions of the period and my comprehension of why she found it so hard to value herself. I also found the end a bit drawn out, as if a second rejection scene was specifically put into place in order to lead to Jessica’s moment of self-actualization and quite frankly, it felt a bit forced and lacking in the subtlety I often associate with Ms. Milan’s writing. Even with those two nit-picks, this was a very good book. The characterization was refreshing within the larger standard framework of meeting, conflict, growing attraction, HEA. I could have filled this entire review with snippets of dialogue that were amusing and/or emotionally insightful and I could list several segments where I particularly enjoyed how the author peels a thread from the weave of the character(s) and twists it around – my favorite being the way she drew on Mark and Jessica’s shared religious background to express Jessica’s perception of love as the antithesis of 1 Corinthians 13. To her, “…love was not gentle. Love was not kind. And love was furiously, powerfully jealous.”
On the whole, Rebecca De Leeuw did a lovely job with the narration (in fact, I immediately went to Audible.com to see what else she had done in hopes of finding another audiobook to listen to narrated by her) but there were two characteristics of her performance that bothered me. My immediate impression was that the pause between many of the sentences was a bit too long. Sometimes leveraging those pauses works well for enhancing scenes but in this case I felt like a dog on a leash, straining forwards toward the next sentence and I momentarily considered switching to text in order to have the story delivered at a quicker pace. The second issue actually took me a while to completely figure out: too many general narrative sentences were given a slightly descending progression of pitch and volume, adding drama to sentences that didn’t need it. It’s hard to describe because it wasn’t done to the degree that, say, a movie announcer would if he was outlining the plot and ended with “And then, things really went to hell” and it wasn’t that it made it hard to listen to. My problem with that overused delivery style was that it detracted from the scenes that delivery would have enhanced and it blunted the effect of one of my favorite aspects of the narrator’s performance.
Ms. De Leeuw’s voice simply vibrated with restrained emotion during the many scenes of internal struggle. The overall progression of Jessica’s vocal characteristics was some of the best I have heard, matching the arc of the character’s development and positively bursting with the emotion she so often held in check. Not to imply there wasn’t variation within individual scenes but on the whole the transition from a heart-wrenching desolation and hopelessness, to a woman desperately acting like what she wished she could be, to her allowing her natural humor to emerge and finally to a steely resolve was simply… well, delicious to my ears and despite my somewhat dramatic description, it had a very real-life feel to it. All the characters were well-voiced (distinct and appropriate to the text descriptions) and I enjoyed the slight variation in dialects.
This one definitely falls in the “recommend” category.