reviews

Book review: Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale (or, A Treatise on the Perfect Romance Novel)

(My more succinct review on Goodreads is here.)

As I was leaving a review for a recent Meredith Duran book, I noticed in the comments someone sighing over how they missed Laura Kinsale’s books, how no one could match her. That wasn’t an author I’d heard of, so I investigated and found that Flowers from the Storm was the highest rated of her books.

So I checked it out on my Kindle, tripped, and then accidentally swallowed this book (the longest I’ve read this year, Goodreads informed me, at 533 pages) in about a week.

It is, without a doubt, the best-quality romance novel I’ve ever read. I enjoyed it no less than The Remains of the Day and The Lacuna, the most recent five-star books that broke me down into a wibbly heap, the way only the best books do.

I couldn’t stop flailing and raving about this book, as I read it. I hadn’t seen anything like this attempted by a romance novel author, yet it’s everything I ever wanted in a romance novel.

(Weirdly, I don’t actually read romance novels for the erotica. Once I got past early adolescence, when I was first discovering sex, the smut in romance novels hasn’t impressed me. The characters are never deep enough, they’re too flimsily created solely for the purpose of getting it on. I prefer to explore smut about characters in much longer-standing series, with loads of chemistry and history between them — but that’s called fanfic, and this blog is not here to discuss my fandom activity. I think I read romance novels for the historical fiction aspect [I can’t imagine anything more boring than reading a modern-day romance novel] and the story itself. But I really didn’t read any romance novels before Meredith Duran.)

Back to Flowers from the Storm and how it fulfilled every desire of my soul, as far as those desires relate to romance novels — I can’t help but compare it to the last Duran book I read, Fool Me Twice, where the power imbalance, between a duke and a housekeeper/ex-secretary who had been raised as a bastard, made me deeply unhappy.

If I had asked for an explicit refutation of that power imbalance, this would not have been more perfect.

I present to you:

  • the Hero: a duke, 32; a strong-willed, independent, and confident man who checks off every box for the Devilish Rake stereotype. We are introduced to him, in the story’s opening, in post-coitus comfort with a married woman whom he’s recently knocked up. He likes hot chocolate.
  • the Heroine: a middle-class devout Quaker woman, 28, fully committed to the Quaker life of austerity, simplicity, economy, morality. Devoted to her blind father, who’s a geometrical genius.

Who else is a geometrical genius? The duke, of course. They’re collaborating on a paper together. His daughter Maddie (short for Archimedea) delivers notes back and forth, but never actually meets the duke (Christian Jervaulx) until the night of their presentation to a mathematical society, when they had dinner afterward. It’s not a stunning success, as Maddie’s disapproval of the duke’s reputation would eclipse the sun, and Quakers are not practiced in polite chit-chat. But there is an unexpected intimate moment when Christian asks his geometrician partner how long he’s been blind — eighteen years — and then observes that the father hasn’t seen his daughter since she was a child. He then describes Maddie to her father — not scandalously, but still a description by a rakish duke.

If you haven’t read this book but think you might one day like to, stop now. This book is magnificently executed with tiny details becoming huge plot points, and I don’t want to spoil you.

Here’s what I mean about how tightly and flawlessly written this book is: the introductory scene, as I’ve already indicated, has the duke lolling in bed with his pregnant mistress. On the way out — inconveniently caught by the cuckolded husband — he realizes his right arm and hand are tingling, and is unsure he can move them. The next morning, he can’t even recall being challenged by the husband to a duel.

A few hours after his dinner with Maddie and her father, at the climactic moment of the duel at dawn, he suffers what I can only assume to be a massive stroke. I also considered encephalitis and meningitis, but those seemed even unlikelier to let him recover on his own without knowledgeable medical assistance, which he never gets. The author never does identify his malady, probably because they wouldn’t have known back then.

This is the early 19th century. When Christian wakes up from his stroke and is unable to speak or understand others, without finer motor skills that would let him dress himself or write, and (reportedly) is in a rage that leaves him attacking servants — he ends up in an insane asylum.

One of the best ones in England, of course. Still absolutely horrifying, by all standards of comparison.

Maddie’s cousin runs the asylum, and that’s how she finds Christian again, months later: at the mercy of keepers (who have the usual strong concentration of uneducated sadists), regularly put in a straitjacket in order to be shaved, because appearances are everything in this asylum, which is toured regularly by aristocrats in need of a solution for troublesome relatives. There’s a mix of people with genuine mental illness and others who suffer from varying degrees of depression (mostly young women diagnosed with hysteria or malfunctioning wombs). The duke himself is diagnosed with a “moral breakdown” by his pious mother and the Quakers who run the asylum, both of whom have long disapproved of his reputation. Maddie feels the readers’ sympathy and horror at his situation, and she’s spiritually led to become his nurse. She’s no shrinking violet — she stands her ground with her cousin, who has many cultural objections to her attending a man, but she’s been a nurse before to both genders.

I can’t overstate how gobsmacked I was by this twist, by where the author took the characters. This is a power reversal. This is taking on a fuckton of issues, unflinching, with a vagina of steel. And if Kinsale had failed to follow through on the magnitude of issues — physically, psychologically, and professionally, for a duke being locked up in a motherfucking asylum, in danger of being legally declared a lunatic, and treated as an animal without rights or feelings — I would have left this book with a piece of my heart withered. Readers, she did not fail me.

So that was the first arc of the book — Maddie as advocate for Christian inside the asylum. Let me remind you they’d only spent one evening together before his stroke. But he remembers her, and he remembers her father’s pet name for her, and “Maddygirl” becomes one of very few words he can speak. It immediately set up one of my bulletproof kinks: an overwhelming and unexpected dependence one character has on another, bringing them together with a bond that might never have been, otherwise.

The romance begins out of pure gratitude — the first kiss occurs when she releases him from a straitjacket. Then he has plans to seduce her, just because he still can, which leads to one of my favorite scenes in the book: on a field trip, they end up behind some bushes in a garden, where he finds a whole nest of kittens, and then…let me just show you:

He let go of her, lifted himself clear of the wall. Maddy thought of stepping backwards, and didn’t. She watched him as he knelt and scooped kittens into his hands. The spotted one, the black, two yellow tabbies and a funny little fellow with silver tufts at the tips of its ears: five kittens overflowing his hands and clinging to his waistcoat with tiny frantic mews as he rose.

A yellow tabby tumbled free. Maddy gasped and caught it in her skirt. As she straightened, he lifted the black kitten to her shoulder. Pins pricked through her dress. He raised the tortoiseshell to her other shoulder, put the second tabby beneath one ear and the tufted silver beneath the other, plucked the kitten from her skirt and deposited it on top of her head.

Maddy, half-bewildered, half-laughing, caught at kittens as they teetered and whimpered and fell. When she was too slow to save one, he did, replacing it, snuggling the warm bodies against her throat for the moment they would remain there. The one atop her head stayed put, but cried and cried, digging in claws that tickled painfully.

Finally a tabby and the tufted gray retained their purchase on her shoulders. The black and the tortoiseshell capsized off, but he lifted the two, installing them like soft and ticklish mufflers against her throat, kept in place by his hands.

He held them there. Rhythmic, energetic kitten laments filled her ears. The squirming bodies drove minute needles of pain through her dress and hair and skin.

His mouth hovered near hers. Even if she had tried to step back, she couldn’t have, without kittens toppling in all directions. She felt herself entrapped by it, frozen into place by him.

He brushed his mouth against hers, so lightly and briefly that it was a mere breath, a warmth, a touch and then gone before her lips parted to object. He was smiling at them, at her, holding kittens at her ears, caressing the protesting animals along her cheeks. She sucked in a quick breath as pins burrowed into her forehead and the kitten on top tried to scamper down her nose.

Jervaulx stepped back. He caught the falling tabby with a laughing sound in his throat. His hands washed over with wriggling fur. The others began to slip, dislodged by her startle, driving desperate needles through her clothes to hang on. Maddy ducked, scrambling to break their fall. A small shower of kittens overturned into the soft soil as she fell to her knees. Jervaulx knelt beside her and let his handful tumble out. They picked themselves up and scampered with comical unsteadiness after the others, into the dark between the thick stalks of dahlias.

Imagine: trapping your romantic interest by covering them in kittens, until they have no escape. The perfect seduction.

The second arc takes place outside the asylum, as Christian fights for his agency and legal rights as head of his household. He’s recovering slowly, but still has limited vocabulary and — more frustratingly, for him — limited understanding of other people’s speech, unless they speak very slowly and use simple words (hence Maddie’s cousin explaining he now has the mind of a two-year-old). He depends absolutely on Maddie to safeguard him through the world, and he gets frantic when he thinks she might leave him — again, I absolutely love this…up until the point where he physically stops her from going, of course. It is not cool to rob someone of their agency in order to preserve your own. Their companionship needs to be a voluntary choice. But the text acknowledges this!

I was afraid at first their developing relationship/marriage was going to take a skeevy shortcut, as they’re pressured by danger into a hasty ceremony — but, to my relief, Kinsale dealt with the consequences of that. Less than 24 hours after the ceremony, Maddie says flat-out that this was a mistake and shouldn’t have happened — she’s looking for a way out, to annul it.

So their relationship continues on a path of slower growth. They soon find they have the sexual chemistry, but it isn’t enough. It doesn’t stop them having those moments where one of them goes, “Wait, I don’t actually know you at all. Oh my God, did you actually do that less than a year ago? WHO ARE YOU?” They’re constantly one step forward, three steps back — and I about died of joy, because that is exactly how it should happen.

This is my epiphany, my thesis: So many romance novels stop at the goddamn altar, and that is so problematic! Because nearly every romance novel (in my admittedly limited experience) features a couple who:

  • Are people of different social stations (and the heroine is nearly always of lower class, ugh; I’d love to see an example of the reverse. While Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief series isn’t in the romance novel genre, it is a good example of that social class reversal for the central romance.)
  • Haven’t even met each other before the book begins (Duran’s Wicked Becomes You is an exception to this, I should note), and the time span covered within the book is usually less than a year (often much less). And if there is a timejump indicated of some years, it’s usually an absence from each other.

That setup means there’s going to be some major fucking conflict after the honeymoon, as the couple tries to create a life together — i.e., the ground hardly any romance novel covers. (If you have worthy recommendations to prove me wrong, please make them!)

And this is why I want to fall weeping before Laura Kinsale, washing her feet with my hair. She goes there. She agrees: yes, you can’t meet someone that suddenly, be thrown together with them under that kind of extreme circumstances, let alone while you’re each from such vastly different classes and ways of life, and not have some major fucking issues. Let me show you the issues they have. Let me compound them, like a fireworks display: here’s a few poppers, and here’s the nonstop barrage of thunder and lightning, fit to blind and deafen you.

It works. All the way until the final scene, I was seriously concerned whether they would even survive — or at least, how they would reconcile, because I didn’t quite forget that this is a romance novel, not a more generic novel which could actually leave you with that kind of tragic ending. All the same, I was still in suspense, and that is a major fucking achievement. Hats off to you, Laura Kinsale.

In only these things did she disappoint me:

  • Maddie did not blacken Durham’s eye for manipulating and coercing her into marriage (and really, Christian should’ve taken a swing too, even just to allow their friendship to continue).
  • More seriously (though really, Durham’s actions should have damaged his friendship with them): Maddie never had an actual conversation with her beloved father about her marriage with Christian, addressing how he felt about it and whether it was unacceptable solely because Christian wasn’t a Quaker. Instead her father goes to Christian, only to tell him that he ought to be present when Maddie reads her paper at their meeting hall. That’s all.
  • Failing the Bechtel test, alas.
  • Also a little disappointed that Maddie didn’t have any mathematical prowess or education herself, not even the basics, it seems.

Bullet points of appreciation, though, because I want to end on positive notes for a book that I can’t give enough stars:

  • The realism in Christian’s reaction to being locked up, having his sanity questioned and his legal rights threatened, all of it. He’s far from a perfect character — he has tantrums, even hurt Maddie’s wrist once, but his act of contrition for it was v. sweet.
  • I really loved the silly jokes he made, how much he loved making her laugh, surprising her Quaker sensibilities. That was a wonderful aspect of their relationship and can’t be valued enough in romance novels.
  • Kinsale’s creativity and deft in demonstrating Christian’s limited speech in the narrative after his stroke, how he sought out word combinations and associations to get to what he meant (“write-name pen” to mean signature; “thee-thou sugar scoop bonnet” to mean Quaker — as in: “It had been a great mistake of nature to make her a thee-thou sugar scoop bonnet.”).
  • Lady de Marly was a wonderful character — so true to her aristocratic upbringing, and quite prickly, but still astute and determined, not letting Maddie go easily.
  • All Jervalux’s poor dead siblings! So historically accurate for infancy/child mortality rates of the time.
  • And finally: again, a specific validation of my issues with Fool Me Twice, when Christian’s first left the asylum and is realizing he can’t seduce Maddie like he intended: “While it made a pleasant fantasy, things were different now. The reputation of a thee-thou girl might not have occurred to his family — they wouldn’t care about it if it had — but while she was entirely within his dominion she was also his responsibility. Seduction was no longer the neat lesson that he’d anticipated. From this perspective, it looked too much like the sort of offensive attentions a man might force on his housemaid.” YES AND THANK YOU.
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