Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale [4]

****/***** (4/5)

My second Kinsale novel after SHADOWHEART (***), Laura Kinsale's novels are always a challenging reading experience, but I thoroughly enjoyed FLOWERS FROM THE STORM. The ending was icing on the cake; in fact, the ending was cherry on top of the icing on the cake. Why are her novels so challenging to read? Well, because Kinsale hits you hard with her own dose of brutal honesty, and the stories aren't rosy, 2-dimensional surfaces, but three-dimensional, very complex, very intense. Written well before SHADOWHEART, I found FLOWERS FROM THE STORM's (1992) prose and settings inferior to SHADOWHEART, but its characterizations and story superior. Have I mentioned I loved the ending in this one yet, epilogue and all?

There's many themes and stories in FLOWERS FROM THE STORM, but I find myself drawn to one in particular: the brutal consequences of the lifestyle a blackguard and libertine chooses. A carefree, depraved lifestyle leading to an account of the lowest lows. A lot of regency romances depict a chaste, virgin heroine rescuing a rakehell from a dissolute, worthless life. But I haven't read any which chronicle the consequences of this dissolute lifestyle in quite such a brutal way. More often than not, rosy regency romances sugarcoat the hero's dissolute lifestyle as a prerequisite to his Master of Seduction title, ably deflowering our virgin. In a way, FLOWERS FROM THE STORM is a spin on this same'ole-same'ole storyline: a virgin heroine saving the blackguard hero, but in so many others ways, it's so honest, so brutal: both in the delivery and in the execution, and therein lies this particular story's beauty.

For myself, the journey from a blackguard hero's horrible, nightmarish lows to the salvation he discovers from his heroine represents the heart of the novel: flowers from the storm, if you will. Even though the heroine Maddy saves her hero, I thought novel firmly belongs to its hero, the Duke of Jervaulx (pronounced Sher-VO) Christian Langland.

FLOWERS FROM THE STORM takes the virginal-heroine routine to its extreme where we have a Quaker heroine from the time period ("Friends") shunning materialism and worldly notions as a result of their puritan, spartan upbringing. The hero, however, is materialistic and licentious to the extreme on the other end of the spectrum. In this way, the characters in this novel represent caricatures, symbols from opposite ends of the spectrum. You really get a true sense that their arduous journey to discover common ground represents no small feat: the entire ordeal very arresting, very resonating.

On the downside, I felt the story was very, very slow developing. SHADOWHEART was one firework after another while the 533-page FLOWERS FROM THE STORM languishes in places quite a bit, especially the beginning 2-300 pages which feature the blackguard's lowest lows. Still the story wouldn't be the same without this accounting. I also felt the prose and setting were far weaker than Kinsale's more recent SHADOWHEART. Obviously, her writing has evolved but showed promise from the start.

The Story.

It all begins as the Duke of Jervaulx Christian Langland, a brilliant mathematician, is enjoying a dalliance with his 3-month mistress, the married Lady Edie Sutherland, in the Sutherland home. His mistress is already with child and the child is clearly Jervaulx's since Edie's husband has been away for more than 3 months. The plan is to pass the child off as her husband's since he'll return soon. Unfortunately, the husband walks in on Jervaulx and his wife, and calls him out in a duel. Headaches which seem to plague Jervaulx incapacitate him at the duel and leave him in a comatose condition for a week. When he awakens, his family finds him insane and has him confirmed in a mental institute.

Religion played a huge role in SHADOWHEART and FLOWERS FROM THE STORM is no different. Miss Archimedea Timms ("Maddy") is a Quaker, a religious sect emphasizing nonviolence, shunning social hierarchy, and rejecting materialistic pleasures to the extreme, often choosing dull, drab clothes and a simple lifestyle. Similar to Jervaulx, Maddy's father also enjoys a passion for mathematics, and both Maddy's father and Jervaulx have been collaborating on a revolutionary theorem. Maddy brings Jervaulx's notes to her father and vice-versa, though she's never met Jervaulx in person often having to wait in his parlor for hours to obtain his notes from the butler.

Maddy & Jervaulx meet for a presentation of the theorem the night before Jervaulx's duel with Edie's husband. Jervaulx is caught by Maddy's plain garb and plain appearance, obscuring a beauty. In a very fresh and entertaining way, Jervaulx describes Maddy's appearance to her blind father later that night for dinner.

The story slows down after Maddy comes to the mental institute and aids Jervaulx as his personal attendant. The gravity of Jervaulx's fall from grace is hard-hitting, and his perspective in the beginning no short of a challenge to read. Jervaulx isn't exactly insane, but he can't understand, formulate and articulate coherent speech. The words people say around him is too fast for him and he loses his patience, loses his temper and is driven to violence. He also has trouble remembering words for simple things like cats, razors, and articles of clothing.

Maddy feels it's her calling, her Quaker "Opening," to assist Jervaulx any way she can, and she's very patient with him. She discovers he can write and talk in math very fluently, but everything else requires substantial effort and she has to speak slowly for him to understand. She slowly focuses on one word at a time, and he answers in a similar, but much more jumbled manner.

Jervaulx finds an inner peace, but only with Maddy's calming presence, and he slowly progresses and improves with Maddy's help. Although Jervaulx never fully regains his speech, Kinsale really impresses on her readers Jervaulx's steady improvement with Maddy's help.

Overshadowing this entire recovery is Jervaulx's family's attempts to usurp his fortune and estates and have him declared permanently incompetent. Jervaulx has fallen from grace so hard, he's even detached from his mother and sisters. FLOWERS FROM THE STORM doesn't paint Jervaulx's family in the most positive light either, he hates his mother's over-pious disposition and he hates his sisters' and their husbands' avarice for his money. Only the Lady de Marly, Jervaulx's Aunt Vesta sides with Jervaulx, and vies to protect his title, estates and fortune. She's a fun character, and she pretty much has a one-track mind: procreation and begetting an heir for Jervaulx.

When Aunt Vesta demands Jervaulx marry another Lady as the only way she will keep him out of the mental institute, Jervaulx runs from the altar with Maddy instead. The adventure takes off there as Maddy and Jervaulx race to return Jervaulx's speech to some semblance of rationality before the next competency hearing. A hearing arranged by his mother, his sisters and brothers-in-law.

Although slow moving overall, the finale was grand once you get there. And very heartwarming. I thought both Jervaulx & Maddy acted honorably and maturely, even with Jervaulx's tricks. Maddy surprised me time and time again during situations and circumstances prime for a cliche regency-romance-heroine run and gun.

Anyhow can't say enough how much I really enjoyed this novel. An entertaining and heartwarming take on regency romance to the extreme.

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