The Duke of Rockliffe is 36 years old, head of his house, and responsible for his young sister, Nell. He is, therefore, under some pressure to choose a suitable bride. Whilst accompanying Nell to what he speedily comes to regard as the house-party from hell, he meets Adeline Kendrick – acid-tongued, no more than passably good-looking yet somehow alluring. Worse still, her relatives are quite deplorable – from a spoiled, ill-natured cousin to a sadistic, manipulative uncle. As a prospective bride, therefore, Adeline is out of the question. Until, that is, a bizarre turn of events cause the Duke to throw caution to the wind and make what his world will call a mésalliance.
Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A-
Originally published in 1990, The Mésalliance is the second book in Stella Riley’s series of Georgian romances, which began with The Parfit Knight and continues with The Player . Substantially revised since first publication, the book is a superb compromised-into-marriage story which sees the suave, sophisticated and unflappable Duke of Rockliffe meeting his match and getting his happy ending; although not without a journey through the emotional mangle – for both himself AND the listener – along the way.
As listeners of The Parfit Knight will already know, Rockliffe is the epitome of gentlemanly elegance, good breeding and excellent manners. He is also fiercely intelligent, loyal to his friends, thoroughly honourable and seemingly omniscient, somehow knowing everything worth knowing about everything and everyone. In the hands of a lesser author, such a paragon could have been priggish or irritating, but Rock isn’t either of those things. Beneath the carefully cultivated and highly polished exterior is a man of character, a man who would do anything for those he cares about and a man of rare insight and depth of feeling. And I defy anyone not to have fallen in love with him by the end of the book!
The story starts simply. Rockliffe is handsome, wealthy, and, at thirty-six years old, fully sensible of the fact that it’s time he did his duty and found himself a wife. Unfortunately for him, the one woman he has so far met who doesn’t bore him silly was already in love with his best friend by the time he met her, so seeking a suitable duchess from the remaining crop of debutantes and society ladies isn’t a particularly appealing prospect. Rock also has a younger sister who is in need of a steadying, female hand, a factor which is as important as Rock’s decision to marry as his eventual need for an heir.
Committed to attend a two-week house-party at the home of the Franklin family, Rock is resigned to a fortnight of doing the pretty among the simpering misses, and is surprised to see a familiar face among the guests. Adeline Kendrick is the Franklins’ niece, and it is soon clear to Rockliffe that while she is family, she is treated little better than a servant by them, especially by her lovely, but utterly spoiled and selfish cousin, Diana.
Although not a beauty, there is something in Adeline’s quiet strength and defiantly waspish tongue that intrigues Rockliffe and draws him to her. He is astonished to discover how much he wants her, but being a man of honour, knows there is nothing to done about it. Fate has other ideas however, because when Adeline discovers that Diana has hatched a scheme to entrap him, thwarting it places the two of them in a compromising position instead and there is nothing for it but for Rockliffe to offer marriage to Adeline – which he does with a lack of dismay about the situation that surprises him.
Things move quickly after that, but Adeline, taught by life to be cautious, isn’t willing to risk revealing the true nature of her feelings to Rockliffe and asks him for time to accustom herself to marriage before they consummate their union. Being the gentleman he is, her new husband agrees – not without difficulty – and decides to give Adeline the courtship their hasty marriage denied her. Unfortunately, however, it’s not long before Adeline’s slime-ball of an uncle, Richard Horton, insinuates himself into her life by telling her something unpleasant about her past and threatening to reveal it to Rockliffe if she doesn’t pay him to keep quiet.
From here on in, the tension in the story really ratchets up. Adeline, knowing how much Rock has done for her in marrying her can’t face the prospect of being responsible for tarnishing his good name and reputation, and the tissue of lies and misunderstandings between them spiral out of control until they eventually reach a point where it seems almost impossible that they will ever be able to work things out.
I have to say that I am not overly fond of the Big Misunderstanding in romances, but I’ve been a fan of Stella Riley’s for almost thirty years, and I knew that if anyone could pull it off she could. And she does. While it’s certainly frustrating that Rock and Adeline don’t – or can’t – talk to each other about their problems, Adeline’s reasons for not wanting to do so are perfectly understandable, as is Rockliffe’s withdrawal when he believes her to be uninterested in him; and the all the roiling emotions concealed beneath the surface are skilfully realised. It’s wonderfully angsty and beautifully written, and the characterisation of Rock is superb. In the latter part of the story especially, the author brilliantly conveys the sense of a man on a tight rein and close to coming completely undone. Adeline is perhaps a little harder to like because of what she puts Rock through, but she’s nonetheless the sort of heroine one can root for; strong and determined, she has had to grow a thick skin and learn to look after herself given the treatment she received at the hands of her uncaring relatives.
Without wishing to take anything away from the author, who has written a tremendous story, the narration by the supremely talented Alex Wyndham takes The Mésalliance to a whole new level of excellence. He has a real affinity for and understanding of the material, and his ability to get under the skin and into the heads of the characters is exceptional. His interpretation of Rockcliffe is simply stunning, so much so that the word “performance” seems an inadequate description for what I was listening to. He captures the essence of the character absolutely, adopting a soft, always precise manner that leaves the listener in no doubt as to Rock’s incredible self-possession while also hinting at a deeply buried vulnerability. I can imagine that portraying a character who prides himself on maintaining his sang-froid at all times, and then having him gradually abandon that control while at the same time keeping him completely in character must have presented a challenge – but if that was the case, one would never know it, because Mr Wyndham ‘s performance in those parts of the story is sublime.
Another thing that impressed me hugely is the way he handles the large supporting cast with such aplomb. Every single one of the numerous secondary characters is voiced distinctly so that, even in the case of those who don’t appear very often, they are immediately recognisable and there is no question of confusing them with anyone else. And those who do appear regularly, such as Amberley, Jack Ingram and Harry Caversham are easy to distinguish from one another and everyone else, while Richard Horton’s pinched, nasal drawl is the perfect match for the malevolence of his character.
I can’t do anything other than recommend the audiobook of The Mésalliance most strongly to fans of the genre and romance audiobooks in general. Ms Riley writes with intelligence and charm, and has the knack of creating the most delicious heroes and cracking sexual tension between her protagonists. If you’ve listened to Alex Wyndham before, then you’re not going to need much convincing to listen to him again. His performance here is possibly his best yet, and even though I can’t imagine how he could possibly improve on it, I have no doubt he will prove me wrong when The Player is released in a few weeks’ time.