Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicholas Boulton

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The Duke of Jervaulx was brilliant – and dangerous. Considered dissolute, reckless, and extravagant, he was transparently referred to as the “D of J” in scandal sheets. But sometimes the most womanizing rakehell can be irresistible, and even his most causal attentions fascinated the sheltered Maddy Timms.

Then one fateful day she receives the shocking news – the duke is lost to the world. And Maddy knows it is her destiny to help him and her only chance to find the true man behind the wicked facade.

But she never dreamed her gentle, healing touch would alter his life and her own so completely – and bind them together in need, desire…and love.

Publisher and Release Date: Hedgehog Inc. June 2013

RHL Classifications:
Time and Setting: Regency England
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars
(only because I can’t give it ten!)

Review by Caz

As with my reviews for Prince of Midnight and Midsummer Moon, the short version of this review is “It’s absolutely fantastic, so go and buy it immediately!”

As for the the longer version. Well. It’s long.

The story opens with Christian Langland, Duke of Jervaulx in the bed of his current lover, Eydie, Lady Sutherland. It’s immediately clear that he’s rather a dissolute young man who has no scruples about taking his pleasure where he finds it. But there’s more to him than the face of the rakehell he presents to the world. He is a mathematical genius who runs his estates with an iron hand and who has done much to increase his wealth by a somewhat unorthodox approach to his business ventures and investments, all of which are dependent on his skill and incredible mind as he manipulates and pulls the necessary strings, often on a knife-edge between success and disaster.

His mathematical bent also led him to strike up a correspondence with Mr John Timms, a renowned mathematician with whom Christian eventually collaborates on a treatise. Timms and his daughter Archimedia (Maddy) are members of the Society of Friends and Maddy cannot but disapprove of Christian’s dissolute lifestyle.

Shortly after the presentation of the mathematical paper, Christian – although only thirty-two – suffers what we would recognise today as a kind of stroke. He is left partially disabled on his right side and completely unable to communicate; and his family – resentful of the fact that they are being kept on a tight financial rein and eager to gain control of the Langland purse-strings –are all too ready to believe him to have been reduced to a state of idiocy. They have him committed to an asylum in Buckinghamshire which is run by one Edward Timms, a cousin of Maddy’s and her father’s.

Some months later, Maddy and her father arrive at the asylum in order to assist Edward in his undertaking, and it is there that Maddy is horrified to see Christian again, chained, almost wild and considered extremely dangerous. He cannot speak and it appears he cannot understand what is said to him; and the overwhelming feeling transmitted to the listener is one of Christian’s utter and hopeless frustration – with himself as much as with the inability of his ‘keepers’ to see that there is still a man inside the patient.

Even though the Quaker-run asylum seems to be rather more enlightened than other, similar establishments of the time in terms of the way the inmates were cared for, some of the so-called treatments were nonetheless quite horrific. The scene that describes Christian’s ice-bath makes for really uncomfortable listening, as do those in which his “minder” beats him when Christian’s desperation over his inability to express himself boils over into physical outbursts. And Edward Timms’ insistence that Christian not be “over stimulated” by the use of writing implements, while good-intentioned, appears cruel given that written communication seems to be the one way in which Christian might be able show that his sanity is not in question.

When Maddy arrives, Christian risks a punishment in order to try to communicate with her. I’m no expert, but I believe it happens sometimes with a brain injury that victims are able to retain certain functions while losing others. In Christian’s case, he can think and speak perfectly well in mathematical terms and by using mathematical equations. His mind has retained that particular skill, and he manages to convince Maddy that he is not mad by drawing an arithmetical symbol.

All the years of working alongside her father enable Maddy to recognise Christian’s scrawl for what it is – even though she can’t identify it herself – and she realises –

“He isn’t mad. He is maddened.”

Believing she has had an “opening”, a truth given to her by God, Maddy requests she be entrusted with his care, and with her help and support, Christian embarks upon the slow road to recovery.

There are many obstacles to overcome along the way. Not only is Christian deeply frustrated by his own inadequacies, his family wants him declared non compos mentis, labelled insane and shut away forever. Then there is Maddy’s anguish at her inability to reconcile her conscience with the feelings Christian – this wildly “improper” man – evokes in her. His terror at the thought of being re-committed, his desperation to thwart his family’s intent and Maddy’s heart-felt struggles – all of those things and so many more come vividly, brilliantly to life in Ms Kinsale’s gorgeous, economical prose, and now, even more splendidly in Nicholas Boulton’s awe-inspiring narration.

The romance at the heart of the book is beautiful. The protagonists are both misfits in different ways – Maddy because her stubborn streak is not looked upon as an asset by her peers and Christian because of his incredible mind – and yet the dissolute duke and his drab Quakeress are a perfect fit. I adore the way Christian teases Maddy, his wit and risqué sense of humour; and although sometimes the jokes go over her head, I love how she takes her cue from him and allows herself to laugh and even to go so far as to tease him in return. There are times when you could cut the romantic tension with a knife, and the love scenes are gloriously sensual.

I especially like the way Ms Kinsale writes Christian’s disjointed, stream-of-consciousness thoughts in such a thoroughly convincing and completely understandable manner. Not only has the stroke left him unable to speak, it has caused aphasia, which is a condition in which it is difficult (or impossible) for the sufferer to articulate ideas or comprehend spoken or written language. So it’s not as though Christian is trapped in a world where his brain is functioning normally, but he cannot express himself. It’s far more than that – he simply can’t find the words he wants half the time, and the way she has the words firing around his brain as he searches feels realistic and is often quite amusing. For example, when he’s trying to think of the word to describe Edward Timms (which I assume is “doctor”) his thought processes go like this:

The other, medical blood master bone… blood—the other—only stood there, looking learned and paternal.

Or when he’s trying to think of the word for what Maddy wears on her head:

he’d never seen anything as beautiful as Maddy in her starched— thing— white—head— sugar?—than Maddy in this prison cell.

(It’s a sugar-scoop bonnet.)

Christian’s recovery is by depicted in the text through Ms Kinsale’s skilful manipulation of the language; she makes changes to Christian’s understanding and his articulation by such slow degrees that it’s almost unnoticeable until suddenly, he’s speaking in almost complete sentences and you start to wonder when that happened.

As a piece of writing it’s beautiful in its subtlety. But actually hearing it brings an entirely new dimension to Christian’s situation and his struggles.

I’ve already banged on and on in other reviews about how bloody good a narrator/performer Nicholas Boulton is, but – incredibly – in this, he has somehow taken things up a gear because his performance as Christian is even better than I’d hoped for. I imagine that voicing this particular character presented numerous challenges – which I hope were also enjoyable ones – yet Mr Boulton keeps his performance from becoming A Performance (I’m thinking Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man here!). Christian’s struggles in thought and speech are delivered in a completely naturalistic manner, and there was never a point at which I felt that anything was exaggerated or unrealistic.

Christian is – deservedly – a hero beloved in the genre, and that, I think, partly accounts for the dislike of the heroine I’ve come across in so many of the book reviews I’ve read and, to be completely honest, must be a factor in the problems I have with Maddy, too. Despite a past as a louche womaniser, the Christian we come to know throughout the course of the story is a changed man. He does still have some less than laudable impulses, it’s true – like his determination to make Maddy love him and then abandon her – but that one is short-lived and more a product of Christian’s bitterness and frustration than of any real dislike for Maddy herself.

But she can be a very difficult heroine to like or empathise with. She has been brought up a Quaker and that way of life is incredibly important to her. She frequently comes across as overly prim, but I have no problem with that; indeed, it would be odd if she were not, given her background. It is quite clear however, that Maddy is not perhaps completely suited to life as a Quaker. She is a little too independent of mind and spirit, things she knows she should squash in order to fulfil her commitment to God and to the Society, and yet she cannot find it in herself to submit completely. As a result she is neither fish nor fowl, and is continually fighting to reconcile her personal desires with her conscience.

Maddy does have her own demons to face – her growing desire for Christian, her belief that her feelings for him make her wanton and unworthy of the Society – and she certainly goes through the emotional wringer throughout the course of the story. But her trials don’t serve to make her as sympathetic a character as Christian, and certainly it’s difficult for the modern reader to sympathise with her struggles. The biggest problem for me, and I imagine, for many readers, is what Maddy does to Christian in the latter stages of the book. He is making a last-ditch, all-or-nothing attempt to save his fortune, his name and his freedom by that age-old trick of acting as if nothing is wrong, spending money like water and preserving his appearance as an incredibly wealthy member of the aristocracy while he waits for his plans to reach fruition. But Maddy sees only that their finances are in a poor state and nags him at every opportunity about his excessive spending. She has done so much for him – she was the only one who could see the truth about him when he was incarcerated, she saved him from a life of painful treatments, helped to protect him from his grasping family, helped him to learn to speak, write and understand… loved him – and yet at the time he needs her the most, she begins to withdraw from him.

I can understand why she did it. She had just discovered that her marriage to Christian had been contrived by his friends; she could have just miscarried a baby and then discovers that Christian has an illegitimate daughter; she is bemused and somewhat intimidated by a lifestyle so completely contrary to the one she is used to; she is beginning to think that she did a terrible thing in consenting to marry without the consent of the Elders or her father and outside her faith. She is beginning to think she does not know Christian at a time when she is also being threatened with repudiation by the Society and she does not know which way to turn. Christian starts to believe that she is turning from him because she has a fondness for the young Quaker Richard Gill – but he cannot afford to take the time out in order to attend to the state of his marriage, because so much is riding on the massive gamble he is taking in order to restore his finances and secure his – and Maddy’s – future.

But although I can understand the reasons behind Maddy’s actions, I still wanted to slap her into the middle of next week. For one who has been so perceptive, especially where Christian is concerned, to deny her support at time of great need seems self-centred and cruel. It’s true that Maddy suffers greatly as a result of her actions – she loves him deeply and is so torn between what she is beginning to see as an unholy love and the teachings she has ahered to for her entire life, that it’s tearing her apart. But instead of turning to him, she gives him the cold shoulder.

It’s almost unforgiveable in print. And despite the fact that you can hear Maddy’s heartache and sheer exhaustion in Nicholas Boulton’s amazing performance, and can really feel for her dilemma – it’s still unforgiveable.

Part of me thinks that it’s because he has brought Christian so wonderfully to life and made him so real, that my reaction to anyone trying to hurt him would be to look for the nearest blunt instrument. But another part tells me it’s because Laura Kinsale is trying to be true to Maddy as well as to Christian. She’s not an author to shy away from the challenges presented by her characters; and having them react in a way that is true to the character rather than in a way that will make the story more palatable might make for a less comfortable read/listen – but at the same time, it imparts a grittiness and a greater sense of reality overall.

I’ll end by saying that if you like the book, you certainly won’t be disappointed in the audio version. I can’t, in all honesty, say that Maddy is completely redeemed in my eyes by what is a truly articulate and perceptive performance – but that is nobody’s fault but mine.

In short, as I said at the beginning. Flowers from the Storm in audio is fantastic. Go and listen to it immediately.

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