Premise: Annabel Chapman comes from a wealthy family, but when her father dies and the family accumulates debt, they must work in the fields to pay off what they owe. When Annabel’s family refuses to work, she either must agree to marry Tom the Bailiff, who has offered to pay their debt for them, or work in the home of the new lord, Ranulf le Wyse, in order to repay it. Lord le Wyse has a reputation of being harsh and uncompromising, and he wears a beard to cover a scar on his face, which all adds to his fierce countenance.
Annabel proves to be a hard worker, but continually finds herself bumping into Lord le Wyse in awkward situations. Their relationship becomes complicated when they begin to develop feelings for each other, though they are conflicted with how they really feel. Lord le Wyse bears the pain of losing a child and a wife, and Annabel has dreams of becoming a nun, so romance is the last thing either of them want. Since Annabel can read and has always wanted to read the Bible for herself, she jumps at the chance to read to Lord le Wyse. It is during these nightly readings that their relationship becomes confusing, but it is also a time when they gather answers to questions they have about life.
Things come to a head when Bailiff Tom is injured when trying to take advantage of Annabel in the woods. She is quickly suspected of injuring him but refuses to reveal the truth in order to protect someone else. Ranulf le Wyse faces a revolt incited by Tom and Annabel must make the decision to save her own life by fleeing to the convent or staying to defend Ranulf’s honor. It is during this time that everyone’s true feelings come to light.
Themes: The Merchant’s Daughter is a romance, bringing together people who are initially not attracted to each other but begin to see the good in each other through adverse circumstances. Lord le Wyse initially comes off as mean and Annabel desires to become a nun, but their desires to be alone are slowly changed as they spend more time together.
This is also a story of faith and seeking truth. Annabel has never seen a Bible, let alone read one, and her dreams of becoming a nun stem from her deep-rooted desire to read the “Holy Writ” with her own eyes and thoughtfully come to conclusions based on her own reading. Ranulf has a Bible and allows her to read to him, and their reading and accompanying conversations lead them to deep discussions about faith, contrasted by the sermons of the local priest.
With the historical medieval setting of The Merchant’s Daughter, there is also a vein through the story of the separation of classes. We have lords controlling land and the peasants they oversee, kings who rule and those who judge on their behalf, and a sense of duty, both for the peasants to work for their lord and for the lords to protect and provide for those people. Questions of propriety come up, with Annabel being a servant to the lord, along with her desire to read the Bible to make her own decisions of her faith.
Pros: It is humbling how easy it is to take the printed and written word for granted, especially the availability of a Bible for people to read. It was refreshing to read a romance that didn’t focus on sex as the basis for a relationship. I was thankful that the main characters struggled with their faith and didn’t make blind assumptions. They ask valid questions that are relevant to everyone who has questions about belief in God.
Cons: The Merchant’s Daughter suffers from too much telling and not enough showing. Some additional dialogue would have helped, but I can see how this might have taken away from the tension between the characters. Annabel seemed a little too perfect as a character, being kind and beautiful and virtuous in all ways. A couple of the supporting characters felt unnecessary, especially Gilbert Carpenter, who could have probably been omitted or combined with another. The Merchant’s Daughter might be considered preachy for some, but this can be easily accepted if the reader opens the book knowing that it is Christian fiction.
Recommendations: For a clean, Christian retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, The Merchant’s Daughter does a satisfactory job. There is some violence and attempted rape, but it is not in any way graphic. The romance is palatable, though I am certain I am not really the intended audience. This would probably be more entertaining for a female teen than an adult male. Give this a chance if you are looking for historical fiction with a good message or if you simply like fairy tales and are looking for a different take on a classic.