As a very new reader to romance, the books I’ve picked up have tended to be fairly new, as in published within the last 5-10 years, and decidedly feminist or progressive in their mentality. Even if they’re not openly advocating for women’s rights or chiding the customs that disadvantage(d) women, the stories I’ve loved have mostly had a bent of “they’re awesome but overlooked because of social/cultural reasons.” Enter Flowers from the Storm, which is more than twenty years old and not un-feminist or non-progressive, but it comes from a completely different perspective than “let’s explore women’s issues through the lens of romance.” This heroine is not a plucky, somewhat out-of-her-time could-be gal pal of a 21st century lady; nor is she a somewhat typical woman of her era with nonetheless relateable and admirable qualities. No, Archimedea (Maddy) Timms is not someone who I can relate to, or understand, or someone with whom I want to grab a beer, but that didn’t make her story any less compelling.
Let’s jump in. The male hero of Flowers from the Storm is Christian, Duke of Jervaulx: womanizing, incredibly intelligent, and intimidating. Within the first several chapters — not a spoiler; it’s the basis of the story — he undergoes something like we are meant to understand is a stroke, and for the rest of the book is trapped in his own head. He hasn’t lost any of his intellectual capacity, but his language processing has been compromised, so he can’t understand spoken or written word, or speak, or write. Because this is the early 19th century and these types of impairments aren’t really understood, he’s written off as an “idiot” and sent to an asylum which, if I had to speculate, is probably pretty decent by standards of the time but still reads as inhumane to us. The entire novel is a process of recovery for Jervaulx, as he strives to regain his ability to communicate. Tied in with the heart-wrenching process of overcoming that disability is that most of his family spends the book persecuting him and trying to get him declared legally incompetent so that they can assume control of his money and estates. So Jervaulx’s motivation to recover is twofold: he needs to defend his title and position, and he also needs to be able to speak what’s in his heart, because he’s in love.
Which brings me back around to Maddy. What’s her deal? Well — she’s a Quaker. A dedicated one. She’s modest, and pious, and despite an undeniable attraction and growing feelings for Jervaulx, those “worldly” feelings are completely at odds with her ingrained beliefs and the values of the community that she holds incredibly dear. As someone who is not religious, or spiritual, and who (perhaps pretentiously, I will concede) tends to have no patience for that manner of fervor, this was not an easy character for me to love. She is obviously caring and does a bang-up job of working with and advocating for Jervaulx, and despite her misgivings about what’s proper, she — for the most part — unselfishly prioritizes what Jervaulx needs for his recovery over her rigid code of propriety. But while she’s remarkably attuned to his needs medically, she’s either incapable of or unwilling to accept the legitimacy of Jervaulx’s feelings for her. As a reader, this is very frustrating, because she seems to be able to decipher through Jervaulx’s broken speech in almost every instance except when he’s speaking directly of his need for her, and when she does understand, she dissolves into a vortex of conflict over the ardency of his feelings (and hers!) versus the way of her “people.”
In most situations, this amount of angst would be a bit much for my taste. It’s just not for me. But something about Kinsale’s writing itself was very compelling, as was the whole concept of Jervaulx’s struggle. In other words, this almost worked better for me as a historical fiction than as a romance, but, regardless of genre trifling, I can’t deny that several days after finishing this book, it’s still in my head. There was obvious care paid to this unusual story and difficult characters, and their journey was emotional and rewarding.