My Sweet Folly by Laura Kinsale
(Berkley, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-15687-7
*****
Laura Kinsale is, regardless of genre or literary status, one of the best writers of the millennium. Since 1986, with the publication of The Hidden Heart by Avon, she has produced a book a year; and every one has been a masterpiece of emotional story-telling. The two-year wait for My Sweet Folly, her third Berkley title, has been agonizing for devoted readers.

The book opens at the turn of the nineteenth century with an epistolary chapter of letters between Folie Hamilton who lives in Toot-above-the Batch in Herefordshire, and her husband's cousin, Robert Cambourne, a lieutenant in the Bengal Infantry. Cambourne is the misfit son of one of the directors of the great East India Company. He immerses himself in the spiritual lore of the East under the tutelage of a native "guuruu". Folie is the neglected spouse of a rose aficionado, and unloved stepmama to his eight-year-old daughter. This heart-breaking chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

When Cambourne becomes too warm in his written expression, Folie tells him, "I have thought a long time about your letter. I have hidden it, it frightened me, and yet I could not destroy it." Cambourne swears he will " . . . say no more to frighten . . ." her. Yet every word they share speaks of hidden love and longing. When Folie writes with chagrin of her loneliness among the roses, Cambourne begins his next epistle with the words, "My Sweet Folly, If you were mine . . ." then tells her about the monsoon. His last letter, dated seven years after the beginning of their correspondence, destroys her foolish forbidden dream.

Fast-forward five more years, Folie is a thirty-year-old widow shepherding her now-devoted step-daughter, Melinda, through her come-out season. Cambourne has returned to England, and as Melinda's guardian, commands the ladies' appearance at Solinger, his fantastic moated castle where turrets, spires, and gargoyles abound. And where, like a Machiavellian prince, Cambourne's wolfish eyes peer at Folie from the shadows of the hall.

He is mad.

This is pure Kinsale: Set up a hero impossible to love and make you want to lick the soles of his boots. Set up expectations and repeatedly shatter them with new twists and turns, new insights and emotions.

In the first strange love scene, over one-hundred pages into the story, Robert says, "There. That's how it would be."; and the Kinsale reader knows it is going to be very, very good.

Except, something happened to the book. A wicked fairy godmother excised most of the love scenes. The marvelous story goes on, Robert fights for his sanity, Folie fights for Robert, they both fight for England. But they don't do the dirty again until three-quarters of the way through the book, and that scene is so amazing you wonder what other tricks Robert learned from his guuruu. This reader wondered if they were too hot for the marketing department to handle.

But, all things considered, and regardless of the dearth of Kinsale's distinctive love scenes, My Sweet Folly is a great book, not to be missed by any lover of the genre.

--Lee Gilmore


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