Miss Prudence Merryweather Payton has a secret.
Everyone knows that she’s the only graduate from her finishing school to remain unwed on her fourth season – but no one knows why. With her romantic illusions shattered after being compromised against her will, Prudence accepts a proposal even though her betrothed is not exactly a knight in shining armor. When he cowardly pushes her out of their stagecoach to divert a highwayman, she vows never to trust another man again.
John Roark, Viscount Castleton, is nobody’s hero.
He’s a blue-eyed charmer with a mysterious past and ambitious plans for his future – that do not include a wife. When he finds himself stranded at a country inn with a captivating young woman, a delicate dance of seduction ensues. He knows he should keep his distance. And he definitely shouldn’t start falling in love with her.
When Prudence’s dark past comes back to haunt her, John must protect her – even though he risks revealing his own secrets that could destroy his future.
Rating: Narration A-; Content B+
This is the final book in Maya Rodale’s Wallflower trilogy, and is the best of the lot. I enjoyed the first one (The Wicked Wallflower), which was full of humour and light-hearted banter, even though it did require rather a large suspension of disbelief at times; the second (Wallflower Gone Wild) was a bit of a disappointment, but Ms Rodale clearly saved the best till last, because What a Wallflower Wants is a much more deeply felt story, telling of a young woman’s path towards reclaiming her life following a horrific event.
Prudence Merryweather Peyton, known throughout the ton as “London’s Least Likely to be Caught in a Compromising Position” has seen both her dearest friends find love with two handsome, charming men who are devoted to them. While she is delighted for them, Prudence can’t help but be just a little sad for herself, as she has no such happy prospect before her. Four years previously when in her very first season, she was violently assaulted, something she has revealed to no-one, not even her closest friends. Ashamed, scared and no longer desirous of attracting the attention of any man, Prudence retreated to the wallflower corner at balls and parties. Having learned never to expect help from any quarter, Prudence now has to save herself from the ridicule that will ensue if she is still unmarried by the time of the annual ball held by the graduates of the famous Lady Penelope’s Finishing School. In desperation, she accepts a proposal of marriage from a young man she knows will be satisfied with a marriage in name only, and elopes with him – only to discover that her intended has feet of clay when their coach is held up and robbed.
Having managed to escape, Prudence encounters a young man driving a smart equipage who offers his assistance. Unable to conquer her fear of being alone with a man, she refuses his help and continues on foot, only to discover that the same man – who had introduced himself as John Roark, Viscount Castleton – has thoughtfully arranged a room, food and a hot bath for her at the nearest inn.
A storm of almost Biblical proportions means that Roark and Prudence are stuck at the Coach and Horses for a few days, during which time they come to know and understand each other. Their relationship does develop a little quickly perhaps, but it’s very well written, and John is such a wonderful hero – kind, gentle and with a real sense of fun – that it’s easy to believe in the depth of his feelings for Prudence and his desire to protect and help her to overcome the horrible thing that happened to her. And the thing that really stands out is the way in which Ms Rodale doesn’t turn him into a miracle “cure”. Prudence is a great heroine – strong, clever and witty – but she just needs a little push to re-discover her true self, the one she buried after the rape, and that’s what John provides. He’s perceptive enough to realise that she is the only person who can change her life and he offers her the quiet, non-judgemental support that she needs in order to do it.
But swoonworthy though John is, it’s clear fairly early on that he’s keeping secrets, too, although it isn’t until around the halfway point that the listener gets a real inkling of what those might be. I’ll admit that I found this part of the plot to be somewhat frustrating; the romance develops quite quickly in the first two-thirds of the book, and the last is taken up with dealing with John’s situation and Prudence’s sense of betrayal when she discovers his deception. I realise that there has to be some sort of conflict in a romantic novel, but I thought Prudence had enough to overcome without discovering that the man she’d fallen for had withheld important information from her.
That said, John isn’t a terrible person and the deception he perpetrates is done because of his intense need to look after his mother and sister; and is one that could almost be said to be victimless, although it does open Prudence up to hurt and derision. But she holds her head up high and is no longer willing to be cowed by circumstance, taking back control of her life in one fabulous masterstroke.
In spite of that and my reservations about the pacing, I have to say as well that Ms Rodale gets a lot right in this book. Prudence is often angry at herself for allowing her fear to dictate so many of her actions, and the way she recoils from the slightest touch is perfectly believable. The rape itself is described in flashback in the story, and is very difficult to hear – as it should be. But the author focuses on Prudence’s reactions and feelings, and her desperation when she realises that no-one is coming to her rescue is gut wrenching as are her thoughts later: “The Beast hadn’t just taken her innocence -he’d stolen her future.”
And that brings me to Carolyn Morris’ performance, which in that particular scene is simply excellent and brought me close to tears. She hits exactly the right note with Prudence’s inner monologue, going from disbelief that something like this could happen to a young lady who has always done the right thing – to a desperation thinly laced with hope at the thought that surely someone will happen along to prevent what’s about to happen – to despair at the realisation that nobody is coming to save her.
Ms Morris is someone to whom I always enjoy listening, and I’ve made much in past reviews of her affinity for light comedy and her ability to bring to life the sort of witty banter characteristic of authors like Ms Rodale and Tessa Dare. This being a slightly darker story than the others in the series, there is perhaps less of the banter, but she nonetheless brings a great deal of warmth and humour to the interchanges between John and Prudence as they become close and fall in love. She’s a narrator who differentiates between the sexes through the use of tone and timbre rather than by using pitch to a great degree, and while she is for the most part successful, there are times when it’s a little tricky to tell the difference between Prudence’s friends Emma and Olivia, or their husbands, Ashbrooke and Radcliffe. That’s not to say the differences aren’t there – they’re just quite subtle and aren’t always immediately apparent, which meant that I sometimes had to rely on the dialogue tags to remind me who was speaking. She is, however, very good when it comes to voicing Roark and his (possible) half-brother, because they sound similar enough to believably be related, but not so similar that they are difficult to distinguish from one another.
There’s one thing that’s a little confusing in the audio which is nothing to do with Ms Morris’ performance; and that’s the fact that there are a number of flashbacks/flashforwards from John’s perspective that show how he comes to be where and when he is. In the print edition, these are placed at the ends of certain chapters and are printed in italics, but in the audio, there is nothing to distinguish them from the rest of the story, so they are somewhat jarring. The first one made me wonder if there was a production fault that had catapulted me a long way forward into the story – although once I realised what was going on, it wasn’t a problem.
Ultimately, What a Wallflower Wants is an audiobook I’d certainly recommend to fans of historical romance. I did have some issues with the storytelling, although the story itself is satisfying, and Ms Rodale deals with a difficult subject in a very sensitive manner. Carolyn Morris’ performance is thoroughly enjoyable, and she proves once again that she’s a skilled performer with the ability to get to the heart of the stories she narrates and to pack a real emotional punch when required.