In the books I’ve listened to and read so far by Laura Kinsale, I’ve often loved the heroes but found the heroines rather difficult to like. I’m thinking particularly of Maddy in Flowers from the Storm and Leigh in The Prince of Midnight, both of whom are characters whose actions with respect to the hero I could understand but didn’t particularly like.
The heroine in My Sweet Folly, however, is completely different. Folly, or Folie, to name her correctly, is warm hearted and loving, with a great sense of fun and mischief. She is put through the wringer by the hero, whom she loves wholeheartedly (sometimes against her better judgement) and yet she is not a doormat or a woman to be pitied. Even when she’s at her lowest point, Folie is strong and forgiving, instinctively knowing that the man she loves needs her help, even when his behaviour towards her is downright cruel.
I love a good epistolary romance, so the opening of the book was right up my alley as Folie and Lt. Robert Cambourne fall accidentally into a correspondence that lasts the course of several years. Their exchanges are by turns funny, romantic, and heartbreaking as they fall in love in front of our eyes. Both are lonely and immediately recognise something of a kindred spirit in the other. Both are lonely and immediately recognise something of a kindred spirit in the other. Folie is married to a much older man who doesn’t take much interest in her and probably only married her to provide his young daughter with a stepmother. Robert is unhappily stationed in India knowing he’s not cut out for the army, or for the political division either, when he is transferred there. But after Folie’s husband dies, and she jokingly suggests she might visit him in India, Robert’s response is crushing.
Ten years later, Folie and her stepdaughter, Melinda, are summoned to Solinger Abbey, Cambourne’s country house, because Robert is now Melinda’s guardian. On arrival, Folie is devastated to discover that her “sweet knight” is nothing like the man she had imagined all those years ago. His letters had given her to expect a man of sunny disposition, a kind man with a ready smile and wit – which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Robert may be gorgeous, but he’s saturnine and brooding with an unpredictable and forbidding manner and, truth be told, Folie is more than a little disturbed by him. She mourns the loss of her imaginary knight, even as she tells herself it’s ridiculous to do so. Yet, she can’t help worrying about him, especially when she catches the odd glimpse of the man she had believed him to be.
My Sweet Folly is part romance, part thriller, and while Ms. Kinsale certainly keeps things moving, I felt that overall the story was somewhat uneven. In the first part of the book, it seems that Robert is on the brink of madness as he acts harshly and inconsistently. He speaks to (and is spoken to by) a dead woman and is unable to leave the house because of his irrational fears. He is still in love with Folie but his driving need to keep her safe from whatever evil he believes will threaten her because of her involvement with him, makes him tyrannical and only fosters Folie’s belief that he is insane.
The thriller element comes to the fore in the story somewhere around the halfway mark. It’s a complex but enjoyable storyline involving blackmail, political intrigue, and revenge and even though I thought it was a little far-fetched at times, I nonetheless enjoyed it.
Due to a number of events and circumstances not of their making, Folie is inadvertently compromised and so she and Robert marry in order to preserve her reputation. Of course, they’re both desperately in love with each other while having no idea of the other’s feelings, and there’s a rather lovely air of domesticity about them later in the book, especially in the scenes where Folie is acting as a sort of secretary to Robert and his colleagues. But while they may be good companions, the physical side of their relationship gets off to a very rocky start as Robert makes a completely irrational and muddle-headed decision as a way of protecting himself from future hurt. He does something rather unpleasant which has been mentioned often in reviews of the book, and, in my opinion, strikes rather a nonsensical note in a story that already contains more than enough sudden shifts in tone and direction. I’ll admit that I reached this point in the audio with some trepidation, wondering how on earth Nicholas Boulton was going to make it work without it sounding either laughable or crass. But he perfectly communicated the emotional purport of the scene, Folie’s naïveté, and Robert’s controlled callousness.
But fortunately for Robert (and for the reader) Folie is not one of those romantic heroines who feels that she must wait for a declaration from the hero before making one or her own, or the sort of heroine who will allow potential embarrassment to keep her from the man she loves. Even though she is bewildered and hurt by his contradictory behaviour towards her – warm one minute and cold the next – she remembers something she had once said to Melinda; that “to be loved, you must love” … and realises she needs to take her own advice if she is to have any chance of making a future with Robert.
Despite the reservations I’ve mentioned, I enjoyed listening to My Sweet Folly. Nicholas Boulton’s name has become synonymous with “outstanding” when it comes to audiobooks and he once again delivers an insightful and sympathetic performance. He uses a wide range of tone and accent to clearly delineate every character from the principals down to the “bit parts” of servants and gullible society matrons, and his performance of Robert Cambourne convinces at every turn. Robert is one of the most tortured heroes I’ve come across, and his inner demons drive him to be a not particularly nice person a lot of the time. In the utterly delightful correspondence at the beginning, he’s flirtatious and romantic, qualities which enable the listener to remember that there’s a lovely and loving man trapped inside him somewhere during the events which follow. For most of the first half of the book, he’s in the grip of mania and sounds brittle and unsettled, his deep voice imbued with a harshness that expertly conveys the impression of a man on the edge. Later, Robert is commanding and authoritative, a man you’d want on your side in a fight yet he can be charming and tender towards Folie, his voice infused with affection until he remembers that the best way to keep her safe is to push her away.
While, as I’ve said earlier, I felt that the story was rather uneven overall, it was as beautifully and intelligently written as I’ve come to expect from this author, and as superbly narrated as I’ve come to expect from this performer. I thought that the relationship between Robert and Folie, while not always easy or comfortable, was especially well drawn. The affection conveyed by their letters is palpable and even later on, when things are not going so well for them, there’s a strong undercurrent of sexual tension and attraction pulling them together.
Folie is without doubt one of the most engaging heroines I’ve come across in the genre; she’s sensible, loving, and witty and even though there were times I thought she should tell Robert to take a hike, the Robert she (and the reader/listener) had come to know through his letters was thoroughly deserving of her.
Breakdown of Grade – Narration: A+ and Book Content: B