REVIEW: My Sweet Folly by Laura Kinsale
For those keeping track, this is number eight in my Laura Kinsale rereadapalooza, which started back in 2016 with The Prince of Midnight. My Sweet Folly is Kinsale’s tenth book, and has the distinction of being the first Kinsale book that I read when it was published, in 1997. Previously, I had discovered Kinsale late enough that I had her first nine books before me, to read at my leisure. Eventually I read them all and experienced the painful wait for a New Kinsale Book.
I’ve always wondered if it was my extreme anticipation which led me to mark down My Sweet Folly as “slightly disappointing” in my mental file. I recently wondered if now, 23 years later (!), I would see the book differently without the weight of those expectations that I had the first time around.
The thing is, the book starts delightfully, with an epistolary chapter that details the correspondence between Lieutenant Robert Cambourne in India and his third cousin’s wife, Folie Hamilton, in England (specifically, “Toot-above-the-Batch, Herefordshire” – sometimes I do love the tweeness of English place names). Robert first writes Folie’s husband:
My dear Cousin Charles,
I disturb your peace at my father’s behest. He wishes me to investigate the progress of a lawsuit concerning the proper location of a hedgerow. Knowing and caring nothing of this hedgerow except that it languishes, properly or improperly, in Shropshire, I beg you will do me the favor of not replying to this inquiry.
Folie responds on her husband’s behalf (he is an avid gardener battling “a severe attack of greenfly to his roses”, and thus too busy to respond himself). Her response is every bit as charming and witty as Robert’s initial correspondence, and a friendship forms. Soon, the two are in love – cautiously and guiltily, but definitely. Seven years after the first letter, Folie writes to tell Robert that her husband has died suddenly. She doesn’t hear back from him, and so writes again. Robert then ashamedly responds that he himself has been married the whole time, and the correspondence ends abruptly.
Four years later, Folie is living quietly with her stepdaughter Melinda. Melinda once resented her young stepmother, but they’ve formed a close relationship over the years, one that Folie cherishes. Melinda is a beauty, and though she doesn’t have a fortune, Folie believes that she can make a good match if she takes her to London for the Season.
Before she can put her plan in motion, Folie receives another letter from Robert. His father is now dead, and guardianship of Melinda has fallen to him. He’s returned from India and is residing at the Cambourne family seat, Solinger. His letter is odd, though a bit of the old flirtatiousness remains. In any event, he “commands” Folie and Melinda to come to him.
Folie is torn between anger and hope. At the last moment, she almost attempts to send Melinda on her own, but Robert anticipates her reticence and has a letter delivered to her warning Folie that he will come to get her if she doesn’t come.
So far, so good – Robert wants to see Folie and if she’s honest with herself Folie wants to see Robert. But when she and Melinda arrive, the man she finds is entirely different from the Robert that she’s known through letters. This Robert is abrupt, withdrawn, and appears to be mad.
(The one bright spot is that unbeknowst to Folie, Robert’s inconvenient wife has shuffled off this mortal coil somewhere back in India.)
Robert is anguished as only a Kinsale hero can be. He fears he’s going mad; he is haunted by his dead wife and thinks he may be being poisoned, which makes him suspicious of the household servants and unwilling to eat or drink the food that’s prepared for him. He wants Folie, but he also wants to protect her, from a threat whose origin he’s uncertain about.
Folie is confused and distressed by this Robert – who she really feels is not “her” Robert at all. She still hurts over his betrayal years before, but she’s also drawn to him. Folie is definitely the steadier character of the two, by far. She hasn’t had as much love in her life as she deserves – she married young to an older man, after being raised by two elderly uncles. She’s pretty much angst-and-drama free, except for when she has to deal with Robert. Folie’s a steady, warm, funny and likable character, and I rooted for her.
This is a hard book for me to grade because there were things I really liked about it – mostly Folie and the sparkling repartee between her and Robert, which they managed to engage in even when things were pretty tense.
The external plot – what’s happening to Robert and why – is kind of messy and takes over a bit too much in the latter part of the book.
But Robert is really the problem. Sure he’s charming and funny – when he wants to be. (And when he’s not paranoid and delusional, but that isn’t really his fault.)
But there’s a lot to dislike about Robert. He has hang-ups from his marriage that cause him to treat Folie pretty badly in the last third or so of the book; even though he has *no* reason for thinking that Folie is like his dead wife (he knows she’s not!), he punishes her for what his wife did to him. That bothered me a lot, though Folie, with her easygoing personality, didn’t seem to take it as hard as I did. Also (and rereading has made me realize this is an issue in a number of Kinsale books), he doesn’t really get it together until the very end, at the point where it’s not quite as satisfying as it should be.
But by far my biggest issue with Robert….something I’d obviously forgotten (or maybe it didn’t bother me as much the first time around?) is this:
So, grading. The spoiler really makes me want to rage-drop the grade down to an F or a D, at least, but honestly, while it maybe should have ruined the book for me, the good parts were still good. I guess I’ll just give it a C and call it a day.
Thanks for your review, Jennie. It’s been some time since I read this book, but I remember enjoying the epistolary start to the book and then feeling let down by what came later.
@Kareni: I remember liking it back in the day but since that day was probably over 15 years ago, I don’t remember much beyond the epistolary start, either.
@Kareni: Yeah, it’s such a great start – one of my favorites in romance.
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That paragraph is probably my favorite opener to a romance novel.
But that spoiler! Eek. I don’t remember it either but it’s a deal breaker for sure. And I agree with you about Philippa’s portrayal, too.
I too had mixed feelings about this book when it came out. Like Kareni, I was disappointed (and in my case, jarred) when the book took such a different direction after that witty opener. I liked Folie, but I felt she was a bit of a doormat for not being colder to Robert given his early treatment of her. My biggest issues were with Robert, though, and the one that I still remember disliking was this one:
Buried Comment: Show
I think that today it might not bother me as much. The genre has changed a lot and so has my concept of what is acceptable and what isn’t.
The other thing I remember disliking was that Folie never found out about Robert’s troubled past.
@Janine: Yeah, that was one of my problems, too – Robert seemed to be applying the issues in his relationship with his first wife to Folie, and it wasn’t at all fair. It made me dislike him, and I think I would have been less bothered, potentially, if they had hashed it out, but it was just glossed over.
@Jennie: Yeah. That was also why I saw Folie as a bit of a doormat. She put up with being treated this way and didn’t bring it up strongly enough that it could be hashed out. But of course, the responsibility for the asshattery was all Robert’s.
Thank you, Jennie, for the great review. And thank you, ladies, for all of your comments. I remember reading this when it first came out; I also remember not really liking it but I couldn’t remember why! My memory has now been jiggled and I will not bother tracking down a copy for a re-read.
I just noticed your reference to the mystical Indian journey, Jennie. It sounds like the kind of thing that could be othering.
@Janine: I can see that. I saw it (maybe I chose to see it) as – Folie actually was somehow confident enough in herself, in spite of the lack of love she’d had in her life – to kind of not be as bothered by Robert’s mistreatment. But I can see others not seeing it that way. I liked Folie a lot.
@Barb in Maryland: I know – I didn’t really remember either! I think I didn’t love Lessons in French either, and I remember *nothing* about that book.
@Janine: It wasn’t a huge part, but it definitely could be seen that way.