[Having had this review languish in my drafts for a couple of weeks, I have finally decided to post it – after reading some encouraging comments on Servetus’ spontaneous post. Mind you, there are enough *yawns* and *zzzz*s in here to fill an entire sleep clinic. Paging Dr White, please! But read for yourself]
Apologies to Lauren Blakely and the fans of her work first about what is going to be an – spoiler – uncompromising review. I am usually a little bit more lenient with entertainment works – they are purely for distraction, and do not aspire to literary awards or to be seen as world-changing communiques. I enjoy them for what they are – a tool to while away the 20 minutes while I am waiting for the bus, to help me fall asleep at night, or to satisfy my heart’s need for romantic trash. In order to do so, they do not need to have Booker Prize plots or epithet-worthy turns of phrases. They just have to distract. In this case, however, I feel I am reviewing the presented audio book with slightly more scrutiny. That owes to the fact that my favourite actor is one of the narrators of the book. And suddenly his choice of material becomes much more personal, much more symbolic, much more important than the actual material demands. I’ll admit it loud and clear: I am not averse to romance novels, and particularly not the explicit kind. I very much respect the imagination and discipline of romance authors who have built a universe of characters and deliver exciting, titillating and romance-filled material on a regular basis. However, I am averse to material that doesn’t hold my attention, and to say it right up front, that is my verdict of Wanderlust. Maybe unfairly critical (see above), but honest all the same.
The reason Wanderlust didn’t hold my attention? Maybe because it is a piece of writing that has been put together ‘with a hot needle’, i.e. very quickly. The author is a prolific writer. In 2017, for instance, Blakely published a book every 2 months. Her entire oeuvre at this point encompasses 45 books (or 65 on Goodreads – it’s hard to tell) – and that is despite only publishing her first book in 2013!! But maybe the amazing speed at which Blakely is banging out those books – pun intended – also accounts for the lack of original ideas and the uninspired writing of the book that I listened to. Granted, reading a romance novel is a bit like going to see Mamma Mia: The story is
pretty shit unoriginal, but you brave the show for the music. And that’s what happens with Wanderlust, too. The story? Meh. But you listen to it anyway, for the ear candy, aka narrator Richard Armitage. But nevertheless, I found listening to this book rather difficult – and not because of its language… To me, there were just too many things in the story that I did not enjoy – especially when I am reading for gratification rather than edification. I don’t mind pastiche characters in entertaining novels, but if they are pastiche, they need to rock my boat. Unfortunately, neither of the two protagonists of this novel did that.
Recap: Heroine Joy is sent to Paris to head up the perfume lab of her company’s European division. She doesn’t speak French but is assigned a translator – who turns out to be the hot Brit whom she coincidentally ran into prior to their first official meeting. Griffin is a British translator and native French speaker, currently living in Paris before heading off on a big world tour. He’s smitten with Joy and not averse to an affair but agrees that it would be improper to carry on a sexual relationship while working together. The two of them settle for friendship instead – but their undeniable mutual attraction throws a spanner in the works…
Right from the start of the book, Griffin’s preoccupation with banging Joy really rubbed me up the wrong way. Not necessarily because that reduces the woman to a sex toy, but more because I like to believe that men do not exclusively think with their dicks. As a character, Griffin was not particularly well-drawn, with very few defining characteristics that were not just “typical man”: wants to bang women, likes to drink, works out. Of course he has a sex-god body – and tragedy in his past. Predictable, but ok, some items in Griffin’s life prior to Joy is interesting with genuinely unusual experiences – the French mother, the SPOILER deceased brother… Joy’s characterisation doesn’t fare better. Of course she has a stereotypical “bad relationship” in her past. *yawn* but what else do we know about her other than that she is infatuated with the idea of living in Paris, that she is a chemist by trade, and has a sister back home? She likes pink doors. I found her descriptions of Paris/France/Europe condescending and her monologues made me want to fast forward instead of having to listen to her droning on about her boring life before and in Paris. But hey, maybe Joy’s vacuous, boring nothingness is meant to make her a relatable character, the every-woman who is transplanted to Paris where she meets the man of her dreams? After all, most of us lead ordinary lives… Well, I don’t know, but it simply didn’t really work for me – I disliked Joy and Griffin.
The interaction between the two people didn’t really endear the two characters to me, either. I found it forced and difficult to identify with, from plot points like that ridiculously overlong name-guessing game in the beginning *zzzzzz*, to the far-too-coincidental meeting in the bakery, the predictable discovery that Griffin is Joy’s translator, and the false impediment of the “professional relationship” that previous reviewers such as Preoccupied have already remarked on. Isolated details also felt wrong to me. Like Joy’s first day at work, with Griffin as her translator by her side: In the lift up to the office, the two of them talk and Griffin lets slip that he has spent too much time in hospital. Joy spends far too much attention on that tidbit, asking him whether he’s alright, whether he needs time off, insistent consideration that would only have made sense if Joy already knew *who* Griffin was visiting in hospital, and the tragedy that is connected to that. As it is, she is way too considerate for someone who is not supposed to be in the know.
The fact that a romance novel consists of typical ingredients – the damsel in distress (unable to communicate in foreign land, needs rescue from a knight) / virtuous virgin (dutifully having stayed in a previous relationship because the boyfriend had had a serious accident) paired with the knight in shining armour (man who knows his way around and can speak the local language) / infatuated gentleman with a sex god bod (relentlessly pursuing his object of affection, yet honourable through-and-through) – is not a problem per se. But when an author uses tropes such as that, it better be consistent – keeping the virgin virtuous, and the knight honourable. Yet Griffin, instead of being impressed by the sense of duty and decency that kept Joy in her prior relationship, questions why she did so. That makes him unfeeling, selfish, unreliable – and doesn’t make sense with regard to his own experience of staying with his brother for 3 years even though his plan had been to move to Paris just when Ethan had his accident.
Maybe this inconsistency is meant to make the whole book more original, because otherwise, I did not find that much surprising plot. Both Griffin and Joy have an unhappy past due to an accident to a loved one. The bucket list Griffin is ticking off, is a plot point employed by plenty of films at this stage, as is the final realisation that the bucket list was not about Ethan’s dreams, but Griffin’s. *yawn* Worst of all, however, is the premise on which the book hinges – the ‘impossibility’ of their relationship due to Griffin’s travelling plans. This is so artificial that it made me feel angry. Especially once Griffin and Joy have both arrived at the conclusion prior to his leaving, that they are madly in love with each other, you wonder what the impediment is? Let him run his marathon and take a holiday in Indonesia, for fuck’s sake, and then simply return and live happily ever after! Even the possible career move back to Texas was a bigger potential obstacle than the bucket list…
As for the narration of the piece: Content aside, Armitage was his usual good self when reading the book. It sounded to me as if he put a little bit of extra edge into his voice for the go-getting Griffin, conjuring up a sexy, young-ish, rogue-ish man. I love the precise elocution Armitage puts on the words, the identifiable -t at the end of a word, a crackling -k at the end of another. When he reads, you often *hear* his smile, his sigh, or even his knitted eyebrows, giving extra expression to the emotions of the characters. He varies the speech rate, uses pauses and emphasis to great effect. He worked this kind of magic of this book as well – except for the steamy scenes where I had the impression he was toning down his usual, expressive narration. It wasn’t exactly monotonous, but those were the scenes where I would’ve expected a bit more “gusto”. Sadly, he held back.
However, I also enjoyed the way he spoke French in the book – which sounded genuinely good to me (but DISCLAIMER: I am not a French speaker, so I am not in a position to properly judge his accent.) I immensely like what Armitage does when he narrates, material notwithstanding. He acts with his voice, which is a huge asset for any audio work, no matter what topic. However, if there is one thing I am increasingly disliking in his audio performances, it is the way he voices women. They always sound a bit hapless, naive and damsel-ly to me, dreamy, breathlessly sweet. Fine, when you are listening to his Heyer narrations or possibly Romeo and Juliet (not that I can tell – haven’t listened), but Joy’s narrator in Wanderlust did not sound naive or dreamy to me, and I don’t think the character was intended to be naive or hapless, but a modern woman who is not hap-, help- or any other -less.
The female narrator, Grace Grant, was a new voice for me, and I don’t know whether it was just the character or the narrator’s voice, but I didn’t really take to her very much. She often sounded somewhat mechanical to me, with little modulation or emphasis, almost like one of those automatic voices that read a text on a youtube video. While Armitage put on different voices for different people, I didn’t hear many different voices from Grant. The lack of different accents wasn’t a problem per se; can actually be preferable to having to listen to a botched accent imo. It was only in comparison with the other narrator that this decision stood out in a negative way. I would have preferred it if there had been a consistent decision for the whole audio book. Either *both* narrators voice different accents – or *neither* of them does. This way, the recording sounded inconsistent, and made Grant come across as less capable than she probably is. It also made me wonder whether the two narrators heard the respective other’s recording at all, or whether this was recorded in complete isolation. And pssst (verging on blasphemy): I found both voices a tiny weeny bit too old for the characters.
The elephant in the room
The sex scenes, narrated by Armitage. Were they hot? Well, that depends entirely on your own preferences. If you are not into dirty talk, and you don’t like graphic sex scenes, well, then this won’t find your approval. If graphic descriptions are all it takes to get you going, then I guess they were. I didn’t particularly like the masturbation scenes, but when the two of them finally get it on, I admit that I pricked up my ears. Their first encounter is pretty sexy, not least because of how long to took to finally get them there *snores* (although the exhibitionism – doubtlessly meant to break some sort of taboo and appear as particularly daring – was a bit of a turn-off for me. Not quite my cup of tea. Plus, it didn’t quite gel with the otherwise oh-so-prim-and-proper Joy who cannot even contemplate a hot affair with her sexy translator because that would be improper. So, really, you are now getting off on exposing yourself in front of the neighbours?) It appeared to me as if the author was trying to tick all the boxes with the sex scenes: masturbation fantasies both male and female – check. Exhibitionism – check. Dominance and rough play – check. The sex itself is pretty standard – G on top, J on top, allusions to all fours and ‘wall nailing’ – no other, slightly more ‘taboo’ positions, though. But lots of ‘o’s, and let’s face it – that’s what a romance novel is for. Yeah, my own repressed self was giggling like a little schoolgirl to hear squeaky-clean Richard say those things – but that says more about myself than about him.
So… final verdict
Romance novels are for populating with your own fantasies. Since Richard comes pretty close to mine, you would’ve thought that it might have worked with Wanderlust. But it didn’t because I never warmed to the characters and found the plot too predictable yet unnecessarily laborious. I found the audio book tough-going, and not least because I personally felt it was simply bizarre to be listening to some steamy scenes while actually peeling carrots for dinner. Well, shouldn’t have put on the headphones in the kitchen. But overall, Wanderlust was more like wander*frust*(ration) in my ears. For romantic purposes, why limit yourself to voice-only Richard, when you can have the full package on TV and film? I’d rather watch Richard talk *and* act.
But maybe that is exactly why I am so scathing about this audio book. This was the first time that I *listened* to romance, and I suspect that I would have been more benign if I had read the piece as a normal book. When reading, I gloss over things, I forget quickly. Moreover, I can choose my own voices for the characters, giving them my own emphasis, and shaping them to a man or a woman who I can identify with. Hearing Wanderlust magnified the things that I didn’t like, and I resented that. Because I wanted to enjoy this. Sadly, it didn’t happen. 8 hours and 46 minutes that I won’t get back.
As for “what was he thinking” – well, to be honest, I would expect that he thought it was hilarious. Whether he specifically picked this novel himself or whether it was part of a wider contract he has with Audible – I doubt that he had to be forced into the studio under duress. I imagine RA saw this simply as a job, and he did it as professionally as he could, his usual modus operandi, no matter what he privately thinks about the source material he is working with. And tbh, I suspect it must have been great fun doing those steamy scenes. Just picture it – sitting on his own in a recording booth, fully clothed, microphone and text in front of him, a sound engineer on the other side of the window. And in complete isolation, he now has to read a graphic sex scene. It’s just so bizarre, so out of context, I bet there was plenty of laughing and giggling. Richard [reads with full concentration, extra gravelly voice]: “… Grabbing the base, I rub my cock against her slickness…” Sound Engineer [interrupts] “Hold on Richard, the mike picked up some noise. Can you come in again from ‘…my erection with glossy eyes…’, please.” Oh, lordy, the amount of fun you could have in a studio with that.
It’s actually a pity that there aren’t any sound effects in the audio book. I bet it is even more fun having to do the groans and moans, too… Who knows, maybe this is something that he has always wanted to do, just for the fun of it? I bet it’s more entertaining and fun than narrating a world war 2 documentary. Is it damaging to take on the narration of sexy material? Not on a general level. However much this particular piece of work was not up my street, I actually think Richard did the right thing, taking on this job. It’s another genre ticked, he has proven his versatility once again. In his wider oeuvre, it is just *one* piece of audio work, and as such it is easily overshadowed by popular and great narratives from literary heavyweights (David Copperfield) and biographers (Tattooist). Not to mention his acting work. I don’t think that Armitage will be defined (or remembered) by Wanderlust, but by his magnificent and everything-but-porn work on stage as Proctor, on film as Thorin, or on TV as the great red dragon.