Robert MacBain, the Baron of Baincroft (say that three times fast) is on his way to marry a woman he’s never met, the daughter of the laird of Craigmuir. His steward, Thomas, arranged the betrothal after Thomas’s sister broke her engagement to Robert. Driven by guilt, Thomas searched Scotland high and low for someone who’d marry Rob, and finally found Mairie MacInnes. Unfortunately, now it’s time to go get her and Thomas is stuck at home with a broken leg.
This highly improbable scenario gets even more convoluted before (and after) we discover that Robert is deaf. Apparently Thomas took it upon himself to hunt down an alternate wife because no one could possibly want to marry a deaf man, even though he’s handsome, wealthy, titled, kind to animals, respected by his retainers, and has a powerful, adoring family.
Shortly after Robert arrives, Ranald MacInnes, the laird’s successor, attacks Craigmuir. Ranald wants to wed Mairie himself and is generally impatient to inherit. Mairie’s father is mortally wounded in the fight and, to console his dying hours, Mairie and Robert marry on the spot. While his daughter is out of the room, the laird extracts a deathbed vow from Robert that he will take Mairie away immediately for her own protection.
In all the excitement, no one tells Mairie that Robert is deaf, and Robert assumes she already knows.
The rest of the story revolves around this Big Misunderstanding. It gives birth to a litter of Small Misunderstandings, and the resulting mess is further burdened with unlikely plot devices, historical inaccuracies and characters so stubbornly reticent that they frustrate any effort to like them.
After losing his hearing as a toddler, Robert was taught to talk by his mother. Have you ever heard a profoundly deaf person speak? Even though it may be completely comprehensible, it sounds very different from speech produced by hearing people, making it highly unbelievable that Robert’s conversation, even limited as it is, would pass without comment by Mairie. Then again, these characters decline to say all kinds of perfectly logical things to each other.
Mairie is both grief-stricken and furious over her father’s death. Does Robert say “sorry, but I swore I’d get you out of here”? No. He decides she’s too upset for such niceties, ties her up, flings her on a horse, and off they go. Excellent wedding present, Rob.
Robert realizes - after several Misunderstandings - that Mairie doesn’t know he’s deaf. Does he say “oops, can’t hear you”? Nope. He wants to be sure that Mairie respects and esteems him before she finds out. Apparently the best way to achieve this is to lie to her, and persuade all his friends, family and servants to lie to her, for days.
Mairie’s actions are even less comprehensible. She wonders - after more Misunderstandings - is it possible that he can’t hear? Then she sees him dancing in perfect time to music and thinks he can hear. Then she yells at him behind his back and gets no reaction (in maturity, the equivalent of waving your hand in front of a blind person’s face). Does she ever just say, “What are you, deaf?” Or, more discreetly, ask any of the people who know him? Nope. So we have two completely isolated characters playing “he thought/she thought” until you want to knock their heads together. Romantic it is not.
They can communicate when they want to. We find this out when Mairie is almost strangled to death by one of Ranald’s henchmen, making it difficult for her to talk. To help, Robert pulls out a sheaf of “foolscap” from his pack so they can write notes to each other. Aside from the fact that it will be several hundred years until foolscap is invented, it’s extremely unlikely Robert would have been carrying around paper of any kind in 1335. This kind of careless nonsense abounds and will drive the historians among you berserk.
The challenge of this story line is to find creative and caring ways to overcome serious physical impediments because love demands that the characters touch each other’s hearts and minds. By the time The Highland Wife got around to it, I wasn’t interested.