2003 reissue of 1992 release, European Historical Romance (Regency England)
Avon, $6.99, 560 pages, Amazon ASIN 0380761327
If you want to read a book that comes as close to perfection as any historical romance, then pick up Flowers from the Storm. The story, the language, the emotional intensity: this book has everything. It's Laura Kinsale at the top of her game - or anybody else's, for that matter.
Archimedea Timms is a sensible, strict Quaker lady, the spinster daughter of a mathematician. When her father's work brings her into contact with Christian Langland, the "mathematical Duke" of Jervaulx, she writes him down as a practiced rake, a man of creaturely amusements (as indeed he is - we first encounter him in his mistress's bedroom; her husband catches him as he's leaving the house and promptly calls him out). Nevertheless, Maddy is dismayed, and a bit puzzled by the intensity of her sadness, when word reaches her that Jervaulx has died.
Christian's not dead, though, he just wishes he were. In the wake of what we would recognize as a stroke, he's been confined to a madhouse, diagnosed as suffering from the effects of a moral breakdown. Maddy's cousin runs the asylum, Blythedale, and she and her father go there to live. As she is being introduced to the patients, she is stunned to encounter Christian, manacled and confined to a barred cell. She quickly determines that he's not insane: He isn't mad; he is maddened. The thought comes to her as a divine revelation, and she takes it upon herself to tend to him and help him regain his old life.
His family is trying to have him declared legally insane, but Christian, once he realizes this, will have none of it. He's smart enough to know he can't fight them alone and enlists Maddy's aid. The mere fact that she believes in him helps in his physical recovery, but he discovers that the better he becomes, reclaiming his ability to understand what's said to him and to speak again, the more he needs her. And Maddy finds herself drawn into a world she was raised to reject, going against many of her basic principles; yet she can't abandon Christian, for that would mean turning away from the Inner Light which demands that she stay.
This is much more than a simple story of opposites attracting. It has to do with looking beyond what others see and discovering the real person behind the public fašade. Christian uncovers the repressed sensuality hidden in Maddy's nature, and she learns that in spite of the brave front he puts on, he's vulnerable, petrified at the prospect of being returned to the asylum. It's also the story of rebuilding from the ruins, of finding the flowers that the fiercest storm can't blow away, and making a gift of them to one's beloved. Together, Maddy and Christian collect what they can in the wake of his..."illness" is such an inadequate word for the cataclysm that his stroke represents. It truly is a life-changing event for both of them, and in the end the changes are for the better, even if the struggle to get there is fraught with pain and difficulty.
"How does she do it?" is the question I keep repeating to myself every time I read this book - and make no mistake, this is the ultimate comfort read for me. I have yet to find a single misplaced word, an awkward metaphor, a plot twist that doesn't make sense. Internal and external conflicts are strong: Maddy's sense that she's betraying her upbringing by obeying her charge from God, and Christian's struggle to retain mastery over his holdings, are both fully exposed and explored. Kinsale draws a complete picture of the characters, and the world they inhabit: from elegant Belgravia drawing rooms to the inner workings of a nineteenth-century madhouse, from the crusty pride of Christian's aunt and the almost-fanatical religious fervor of his mother to the simple faith and acceptance of Maddy's father.
The language is poetical. Repetition of images, phrases, words even, works to make the experience of reading almost hypnotic, drawing the reader in. In less skilled hands, the attempt to convey Christian's initial inability to understand conversation would flounder. Kinsale, however, gives us not only what he hears, but also the slow, agonizing process of his having to grope his way to comprehension, so we come to realize what's been said at just the same time as he does. What a masterful way to build reader identification with the character!
What can I say about the sexual tension between Maddy and Christian? Taut as a bowstring. The reader understands, and sympathizes with "prim, provocative, puritanical Maddy," as she struggles to reconcile her Quaker upbringing with the hunger Christian awakens in her. But he awakens it in himself, too, so that we get to see the frustration on both sides. As for its resolution, let me just say that no one writes a love scene with the power of Kinsale. You get it all: the physical description and the deep emotion of the characters. The sex is there, but it's more than that - it's the embodiment of the phrase "making love," the physical manifestation of this mysterious emotion that draws them together.
This is the kind of book - it's the book - to give to someone who disses the romance genre as frivolous and nothing more than soft-core porn for women. Pornography is never this well written. It never engages the mind and emotions like this. It never explores the transcendence of love with this kind of power and emotion. I have yet to weep when reading porn, and you will cry as you experience Maddy and Christian's story: in frustration, in anguish, and finally in joy. My first copy is falling apart, between the pages falling out and the finger-smudges and the occasional blotch of salty moisture on the paper. Flowers from the Storm is just about the only book I've got two copies of. Read it, and you'll understand why.
-- Nora Armstrong
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