Enigma Earl. The Phantom of London. That’s what the gossip pages call Lord Edward Greenwich, a mysterious nobleman who doesn’t show his face in London Society. With a reputation like that, no wonder Lydia Montgomery is horrified to be dragged from bed and packed off to live with him to save her mother from penury.
While Lydia has received all of the training a lady should endure, she’s decidedly un-ladylike. She despises her corset and isn’t interested in marriage. She’d prefer to remain unmarried and spend her time improving her art. But if she wants a chance at happiness, she’ll have to set aside her fear of the earl and discover the man hiding behind the beast.
Will Edward and Lydia’s greatest discovery be each other before time runs out?
Rating: B+ for narration; C for content
[It should be noted that I listened to this audio and wrote this review some months before reading the next book in this series, The Lady Meets Her Match.]
I selected this title for review solely because Marian Hussey is the narrator. I’ve listened to her a couple of times recently and was very impressed with her performances in Brenda Joyce’s Splendor and Lucinda Brant’s Salt Bride, so I’ve been scouring Audible to find more of her work to listen to. When Meet the Earl at Midnight showed up, I jumped at the chance to review it.
It’s the first book in a new series by Ms Conkle which very loosely reworks well-known fairy tales. This one is a riff on Beauty and the Beast, with the opening very closely mirroring that section of the story in which the heroine’s father delivers up his daughter to the Beast as part of a deal – in this case, to pay off his debts and keep him and his son from going to prison.
The Beast in question is the reclusive Earl of Greenwich – known throughout society by a variety of monickers, including “The Beast of Greenwich” or “The Phantom Earl”. He needs a wife urgently and isn’t too worried as to where she comes from, as long as she is young enough to give him an heir. Lydia Montgomery’s stepfather has been embezzling funds from the earl’s successful shipping company, and has offered Lydia in lieu of the debt. Lydia is disgusted, but her prime concern is not for herself; she’d rather be away from her stepfather’s home anyway. Her beloved mother could be incarcerated along with her husband, something from which she would never recover, so Lydia agrees to go with the earl, secretly hoping that she will be able to bring him to see that a marriage between them – an earl and a nobody – is a bad idea.
It quickly becomes apparent that the earl – Edward – is set on the marriage for his own ends. When Lydia confesses to him that she’s not a virgin he says they should wait a month before marrying (or doing anything else!), as he naturally wants to make sure that any child she bears as a result is his. Lydia understands his reasons and goes along with his plans, still hoping to dissuade him from marrying her.
But she can’t deny that she finds Edward very attractive, despite the scars he bears on one side of his face and body. He’s also not at all the beastly creature that society has dubbed him; he’s witty, highly intelligent, and passionately dedicated to the scientific pursuits which have gained him renown far and wide. In him, Lydia recognises something of a kindred spirit; she is as dedicated to her desire to paint and exhibit her work as Edward is to science, and their similarity of outlook helps to draw them together.
Gina Conkle writes well and has created two interesting and engaging protagonists in Edward and Lydia. There is certainly a good deal of chemistry between the leads, although the romance is under-developed and poor Edward is cock-blocked rather too often! I have no problem with delayed gratification in a romance; indeed it’s part of the box-of-tricks of the romance author. But it’s overdone on this occasion, with the couple being interrupted every time they got into a passionate clinch, and it got irritating quickly.
And this leads me on to the fact that there are a number of other inconsistencies within the book that I found distracting and which ultimately took me out of the story.
For instance, Lydia is obviously an intelligent young woman and yet she allows herself to be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and handed over to a complete stranger without question or protest. It’s said on several occasions that Lydia has agreed to marry Edward in order to protect her mother but after the odd letter to the woman, she seems to forget all about her. We never meet Lydia’s mother in the story, and I have no idea what happened to her in the end. Why does Edward insist on waiting a month before wedding and bedding Lydia? If he wants to be sure she’s not already pregnant, he only has to wait until after her next “monthly”. And he never asks her how long it is since she last had sex – it could have been years, in which case there is no need to wait! His reasons for wanting a hasty marriage (and an equally hasty impregnation of his bride!) are ultimately selfish and he point-blank refuses to see that the concerns expressed both by Lydia and his mother (with whom he has a love/hate relationship) are valid ones because he is so intent on his purpose. Edward fails – or refuses – to see that marriage and the possibility of impending fatherhood require a re-evaluation of his situation. And the resolution, when it comes, is something he could have done at any time, which makes the previous conflict an unnecessary contrivance.
All this isn’t to say that I disliked the book – I didn’t. I was just disappointed because it could have been so much better had things been tightened up a little. The time devoted to the needless “conflict” would have been better spent on developing the romance.
Fortunately, however, the audiobook is shifted from the “not bad” category to the “good” one by virtue of Marian Hussey’s excellent performance. I enjoyed listening to her so much that many of the issues I’ve outlined above only intruded upon my conscience after I’d turned the audio off because her narration kept me sufficiently engaged in the story as to make them less obvious at the time of listening. Ms Hussey has a pleasant, attractive voice which is easy to listen to, her enunciation is very clear and the narrative is expressive and well-paced. She differentiates very effectively between all the characters, and her performance of Edward is especially good; she lowers her pitch slightly and adds a harder edge to his speech which leaves no doubt as to his masculinity and which never sounds strained or false. Her portrayal of his mother, too, is excellent. The character immediately comes across as overbearing and unlikeable, but Ms Hussey brings a degree of color and shade to her interpretation that convey the woman’s inner vulnerability in a way that is perhaps more difficult to discern on the page.
I’m giving the audiobook a qualified recommendation, mostly because of the excellent narration. The story is entertaining enough and I would certainly consider reading or listening to more from Ms Conkle as she clearly has the ability to tell a good story. But this is ultimately Marian Hussey’s show; she is definitely a narrator to watch and I’m eager to hear more from her.