Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-380-76132-7
Historical Romance, 2003 (Reissue)
For a while I am contemplating not putting up this review at all. After all, let’s face it, there is no better way to lose one’s credibility than to be less than effusive in the praise of any of the four truly untouchable authors in the romance genre: Georgette Heyer, that Jane Eyre book by Charlotte Bronte (apparently nobody cares about other books by the author), Jane Austen, and of course, Laura Kinsale. Flowers from the Storm has been called everything from the definitive romance novel to the perfect romance novel with ten thousand variations of “This is so brilliant, so flawless, perfection, woo-hoo woo-woo!” When Avon reissues this novel on the eleventh anniversary of the book’s publication, I decide to bite and give it a go.
How was it, you say?
Intellectually, I know this is an extraordinary book. Intellectually, I find it fascinating. But viscerally, I remain unmoved. I will go to the reasons as to why I am unmoved by this book later. First, the story.
The Duke of Jervaulx, Christian, is a brilliant mathematician who prefers to spend his life drinking and sleeping with equally easy women and generally behaving just like legions of romance heroes would. Our heroine Archimedea “Maddy” Timms is a Quaker spinster who has the stereotypical absent-minded father. Her father and Christian are in some academic collaboration, but since Mr Timms is blind, Maddy acts as the scribe and go-between between her father and Christian. She never approves of Christian’s licentious ways. To which, Mr Timms, after having made Maddy spend countless hours at Christian’s place playing courier girl, asks her if Christian has made any moves on her. Christian hasn’t – he hasn’t even met Maddy, preferring to let his butler deal with the Quaker girl – but Mr Timms, that’s a little too late in asking, isn’t it? This father will remain nicely silent as Maddy soon embarks on one of the most questionable adventures of her life.
After a duel with an enraged husband, Christian is struck with a stroke that nearly paralyzes his speech and affects his hearing. He is considered mad. Maddy meets him when she visits the asylum ran by her relative. She understands that he is actually trying to talk about cosine functions when other people consider Christian violent and crazy. When God tells Maddy that she is to stay with Christian and guide him back, she’s all for it. When Christian needs to marry her, she’s all for it too.
Ms Kinsale does an amazing job detailing Christian’s confusion and desperation. The man’s world is crumbling around him as he is besieged by greedy relatives who want nothing more than to see him permanently incarcerated in a madhouse and well-meaning doctors who really don’t understand him. Christian is no victim though – he remains a selfish rake even at his lowest, and apart from the last few pages of this book, most of his wants and desires revolve around him and him alone. He gets frustrated or angry with Maddy because she doesn’t make him happy. Her wants and desires rarely matter to him.
Maddy is no prize either – she has this passive-aggressive streak in her that baffles and exasperates me. I’m not too familiar with the Quaker way of thinking, but she enters this union with Christian because God tells her to. At the same time, she isn’t above being underhanded and often cutting down Christian or inflicting subtle but hurtful verbal barbs towards the man, judging him, and treating his physical handicap like a cross she joyfully carries. This woman, in my opinion, has some unhealthy aspirations for sainthood that sees her sleeping with the hoi palloi she dislikes. Sure, one could argue that she is there to help Christian when no one else would, but she’s doing it for selfish reasons. Maddy comes off a woman that needs to be indentured in some thankless chore that she can sigh dramatically at and to make a martyr out of herself. She’s not a kind and righteous heroine. She’s just a judgmental little twit who loves to throw her perceived moral superiority at those she deems beneath her (Christian’s aunt and even Christian).
But I would still have enjoyed these characters – flawed as they are, Maddy and Christian are gloriously human in this regard. They are multi-faceted characters that intrigue me. In the case of Flowers from the Storm, though, I cannot detect any genuine mental or emotional bond between Christian and Maddy. “God told me so” isn’t a good excuse, in my opinion, to love – love is a gift, not a duty or obligation. Christian is a very difficult man to love – for every one step forward Maddy makes with him, he can easily slide backwards ten steps because he is a spoiled and selfish man. I can understand it if Maddy genuinely cherishes this man to stand by him and be so patient with him, but Maddy isn’t patient, far from it, and Maddy is with Christian out of reasons that are far from noble or selfless.
Christian’s feelings for Maddy starts off like a desperate need to hold on to the only person who will stay and help him, but Ms Kinsale does a better job detailing his evolving affections for Maddy. Unfortunately, his character development comes at the expense of Maddy’s – most of their tender scenes consist of Maddy behaving like a nitwit (getting scared of doggies at night and running into his arms for comfort, for example). Most of the scenes where Christian really comes off as heartbreakingly sympathetic also see Maddy acting like a childish petulant brat – her throwing a tantrum when Christian wants her to dress in a fine gown is one example. It is hard to care for a heroine who seems to be de-evolving as the story progresses. It is perplexing to see the author apparently sacrificing the heroine’s character in order to raise the drama in Christian’s plight and manipulate the reader into caring for him.
In the end, Maddy’s passive-aggressive behavior and her lack of character growth prevents me from viewing her as anything more than a caregiver prone to mood swings who lusts after her charge and hates it because she knows she’s morally above him and hence isn’t supposed to. Similarly, I question whether this romance will even work if Christian hasn’t been struck down by stroke. When a romance needs burst blood vessels in the brain to jumpstart it, excuse me if I find myself a little incredulous about the authenticity of it.
This book is interesting and I do not regret reading it at all. It’s just that I don’t really buy the reasons that these two people stay together. Some readers may call what Christian and Maddy have together “love”, but I actually find this “love” more like some codependent symbiosis between a woman who needs the man to assuage some Joan of Arc complex of hers and a man who loves the woman because he really can’t do anything else. I appreciate Laura Kinsale’s creating a complex story, but at the end of the day, she works my emotions too hard and offers too little as pay-off. I think too much after reading this book – a good thing, really – but unfortunately, I don’t feel as much.