Thursday, May 14, 2009

Flowers From The Storm by Laura Kinsale *****

WOW! What a moving, wonderful, inspiring, unique romance this was! I can definitely see how it makes the Top 100 time and time again - it's a classic and it's truly unique, and so incredibly well written. It's also longer than the "usual" romance novel, well over 500 pages.

The back cover blurb is cleverly written to hide the true conflict - the Duke of Jervaulx, Christian, suffers a massive stroke near the beginning of the book, is declared insane and must struggle to regain his position in the world. The blurb only says he's "lost to the world" so that the reader learns what is going on as it happens. He has symptoms for several days ahead of time - his arm is stiff and unmoving, he has headaches, he forgets important details of his daily life - and in a duel, just as the other fellow shoots, he blacks out completely. Of course, in those days (sometime in the 1820s - it was close to 1828, around the time King George appointed Wellington Prime Minister) stroke victims were thought to be lunatics because they could not speak or if they could, it didn't make any sense. Christian's own reaction to his predicament was violent, so he was locked up in an asylum.

Maddy Timms is a Quaker who lives with her blind, ailing father. Mr. Timms is a brilliant mathmetician - as is Christian, and he has been corresponding with Christian about a particular theorem. Maddy delivers the correspondence to Christian, but neither she nor her father have ever met him. But she's read about him - he's notorious in all the gossip sheets for his bed-hopping and profligate behavior. Of course, she has a completely negative opinion of him, without ever having met him - typical of rigidly religious people, no? She does actually recognize that trait in herself and she admonishes herself to be more... well, perhaps open-minded is the word I mean here. But Quakers and non-Quakers are not to mix and mingle.

Maddy and Christian meet before he has his stroke, at a mathmatical society meeting where he and her father present a paper, to great acclaim. They take note of each other that day - the day before the stroke. When he has the stroke, he is pronounced dead - and with that, her dreams of her father's advancement die as well, since Christian had promised him a fellowship at a college. It's by chance that she and her father then move to help out her cousin Edward, who runs... wait for it... an asylum. Yes, the asylum where Christian is chained to his bed.

Maddy, who has been struggling with her faith, decides that helping Christian is God's mission for her, since she seems to be the only one who can communicate with him and who understands him. And throughout the book, it is only when she is strong in her conviction to help Christian that she is truly happy, and when she has doubts that standing by him is the right thing to do that she is conflicted and unhappy. Is Christian the Devil, tempting her? Or are the Friends who try to convince her to renounce their relationship the ones who are wrong?

Christian's POV is told from his muddled mind, and it's incredibly effective in putting you inside his head. He's treated as a violent imbecile, and in his own mind, as things come back to him - slowly, and never completely, he struggles with reaching out and regaining his position. He comes to depend on Maddy, but there's more there - he recognized her from the beginning as being something other than the Quaker front she presented and tried so hard to maintain. He sets out to humiliate her through seduction, to prove a point to his muddled self, but soon realizes that he needs her, he depends on her, she is his strength and his courage and his only way to his own personal salvation. If only Maddy could believe that. It was a struggle that had my heart aching almost the whole time I read it...

I did have some unanswered questions at the end - did Durham set up all the chases and conflicts, and if so, was it for some nefarious purpose? Was Durham simply doing whatever it took to get what Christian needed, or were the brothers-in-law lying to Maddy to get her to leave Christian, and therefore make him vulnerable to them? You'd have to read it to see what plot points I refer to, but these charges were never fully explained, mainly because we only saw Maddy's and Christian's POVs, and never anyone else's. I guess I wonder mainly because it seems to change Durham's character and motives in my mind.

It's a true 5 star read - and if I hadn't borrowed it from the library, it would be a true keeper! I guess when I'm moved to read it again, I'll get my own copy.

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