REVIEW: Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale
My impromptu reread and review of Laura Kinsale romances continues with this, which I think might be her sixth (or seventh? somewhere in the middle of the pack) book. In any case, it has the distinction of having once been my favorite romance ever. I still have, in my decades-old Excel book log, a spreadsheet devoted to my top 100 that I probably created or last updated 15 years ago. Flowers from the Storm holds the top spot.
Of course, since the list hasn’t been updated in so long, it’s to be expected that some things might have changed. Thus I went into this reading with a bit of trepidation. To mangle a famous quote, I came to praise Caesar, not to bury him. Luckily, I didn’t have to.
The book opens on Christian Langland, Duke of Jervaulx, dallying with his married mistress. As he departs her house, he runs into the woman’s husband, who promptly challenges him to a duel. Christian accepts (not having much choice), and leaves, but he feels strange and unwell and the next morning he doesn’t even remember the events of the night before.
Christian is a bit of a Renaissance man; as the first line of the prologue notes, “He liked radical politics and had a fondness for chocolate.” He’s also an enthusiastic amateur mathematician. Christian’s been working on a proof with another mathematician, a blind Quaker named Timms. Timms’ daughter Archimedea (named after Archimedes, of course) is her father’s caretaker and helper in all things. As such she is tasked with visiting the duke’s imposing mansion in Belgrave Square, carrying correspondence and mathematical proofs back and forth between her father and Christian.
Maddy never actually meets the duke in these visits. She’s still managed to form a very low opinion of him and his worldly wickedness. The two do finally meet the night before the duel; Christian has put it off for a day so he can finally present his and Timms’ paper to the London Analytical Society. Christian invites Maddy and her father to dinner afterward, and Maddy softens slightly towards Jervaulx due to his kindness to her father.
The next morning, during the duel, Christian suffers a catastrophic stroke. Maddy and her father hear that he has been shot and killed, neither of which is true.
The story picks up some time later (months, I think). Maddy and her father have come to Blythedale Hall, the asylum run by her cousin Edward. Maddy is there to take a position as an assistant to her cousin. It’s there that she encounters Jervaulx again, but he’s much changed. An inmate of the asylum, subject to (according to Cousin Edward) a “moral insanity which has blossomed into mania.”
Jervaulx has been left with severe disabilities as a result of the stroke. He cannot speak coherently when Maddy first meets him again. His comprehension of others’ speech is similarly garbled. Physically he’s strong, though his fine motor functions are somewhat compromised. He’s viewed by the staff of Blythedale as something of a brute – his frustration at both his changed circumstances and his inability to affect them or communicate properly does almost madden him. Christian is also taunted and abused by his minder, a man he contemptuously thinks of as “the Ape.”
Maddy quickly forms a connection with Christian, especially when she realizes that his mathematical ability has not been compromised by his stroke. This helps convince her that he’s not indeed senseless, and that he can be helped. She believes that she’s been given what Quakers call “an Opening”, one in which she feels led by God to help Christian.
It’s not easy, though. Maddy doubts her own religious conviction at times, not sure if it’s her own will or God’s that she’s following. She stumbles in trying to help Christian and he is by turns angry and calculating in his attitude towards her.
Christian’s family is comprised of an ultra-religious mother he’s never gotten along with and several sisters and brothers-in-law who are only too happy for the opportunity to take control of the lucrative ducal estate. His best friends, Durham and Fane, have been told that Christian is as good as dead. His only other ally, of a sort, is his irascible aunt, Lady de Marly, whose is concerned about the future of the dukedom as much as she is about Christian.
Maddy accompanies Christian on a trip to London; a hearing has been scheduled to determine whether Christian is competent to manage his own affairs. Suddenly the stakes come into sharp focus – Christian realizes that there’s a very real danger that he will be shut up at Blythedale permanently, if his family (minus Lady de Marly) has their way.
Lady de Marly has her own plan – she wants Christian to marry immediately and work on getting an heir, thus continuing the ducal line and protecting it from the importuning brothers-in-law. She even has a biddable girl in mind. Christian doesn’t like the young (and terrified of him) bride who is chosen, and takes matters into his own hands.
From there he takes a number of actions that are understandable in a sense – he’s fighting for his life – but morally not entirely defensible. In the middle and latter part of the book, I found myself at times frustrated with Christian and Maddy in turn, which I think is a reflection of the fact that they came from such different backgrounds with such little common ground. Add his disability into the mix and the level of conflict was understandable. I *could* understand each of their perspectives better than they could understand each other’s.
Still, I was put off by Christian’s high-handed manipulation of the overly-credulous and unworldly Maddy. Or I was sharing his frustration at her inability to understand what was at stake, and what he needed to do in order to pull off the illusion that he was stronger and more in control of things than he was. For instance, when Maddy comes to realize the level of debt that the ducal enterprise operates under, she’s horrified. Christian can’t make her realize that this is par-for-the-course for his world, and that to economize now would be a disastrous signal to his creditors that something was wrong.
The HEA of Flowers from the Storm has a bittersweet quality; I think I even felt so when I read it first years ago. It’s not that I didn’t believe it, it’s just that Maddy ends up having to give up a lot to be with Christian. While it’s true that there were parts of her personality that weren’t entirely suited to the sober, plain, Quaker way of life – an argument Christian himself makes more than once – at the same time it *was* her faith, and she lost it along with many lifelong friends (since she was to be shunned if she chose Christian).
The same was true of her father, and I would’ve liked some idea of how he felt about giving up the only life he’d known. He always seemed at least quietly supportive of her relationship with Christian, but it felt like some of the real issues that might arise for both daughter and father weren’t addressed.
Still, Flowers from the Storm remained magical for me. Exquisite, evocative prose, a compelling plot and most of all characters who really came alive. Even when Christian or Maddy frustrated me, I felt for them and understood them. I loved the role reversal and how it played out in large and small ways – even their names are a commentary on each other (the Christian Maddy and the mad Christian). My grade is a straight A.