Sweet Madness by Heather Snow

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There’s a fine line between love and insanity.

An Untamed Mind

Ever since her husband’s sudden and tragic death, Lady Penelope Bridgeman has committed herself to studying the maladies of the mind, particularly treating traumatized soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars. It is this expertise that brings the Marquess of Bromwich’s family to her door.

Gabriel Devereaux’s unexpected and unpredictable episodes are unlike any Penelope has studied. The once proud soldier has been left shaken and withdrawn, but she manages to build a fragile trust between them. Strangely, Gabriel seems completely lucid when not in the grips of his mania, and in the calm between bouts, she is surprised by how much she is drawn to him.

Despite his own growing feelings, Gabriel knows that he is fit for no one, and is determined to keep Penelope away from his descent into madness. But even though she knows first-hand the folly of loving a broken man, Penelope cannot stop herself from trying to save him, no matter the cost.

Rating: A

Sweet Madness is the third book in Heather Snow’s Veiled Seduction series, and while I haven’t yet read the other two, I certainly intend to on the strength of this one.

Lady Penelope Bridgeman, the heroine of this story, had already appeared as a secondary character in one of the other books, but unlike her brilliant cousin, Liliana, she is more of a “traditional” debutante in her love of parties, balls, and general frivolity. At the beginning of this third novel, we meet her at the ball thrown to celebrate her wedding, at which she meets her new husband’s cousin, Gabriel Devereux, Marquis of Bromwich. She senses that Gabriel is not completely comfortable in his surroundings and does her best to put him at ease – something which he never forgets.

The action then skips ahead two-and-a-half years, and we meet a very different Penelope. Gone is the fun-loving, optimistic young bride, and in her place is a dour widow, a young woman still, but one very changed by her marriage and the death of her husband.

Following that tragic event, Penelope had shut herself away from society, shunning even her closest friends – of which Gabriel had become one – as she wrestled with her guilt at what she perceived as her own failings and the part she played in Michael’s death. Some months after this, Liliana asks Penelope to help at the hospital that she and her husband have set up for soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. It’s there that she discovers a talent for helping men who are suffering from what was then called “battle fatigue.” Where Liliana is scientifically brilliant, Penelope is intuitive and sensitive to others. She listens, encourages, learns when to push people to talk and when to leave them alone, and has even begun to use art as part of her healing therapies.

As a result of her success, she is asked by Gabriel’s mother to go to see him at Vickering Place – not his ancestral home, but an asylum where he has been sent as a result of the onset of increasingly violent ‘episodes.’

When she arrives, Penelope meets with resistance from everyone. The director of the institution, Mr Allen, is clearly not happy about her ideas for Gabriel’s treatment and the scene that greets her on arrival is truly horrifying. Gabriel, whom she recalls as a gentle, handsome man, has turned into a wild animal, prone to violent outbursts, and subject to restraint and horrific treatments.

Penelope has doubts at first, about whether there is anything she can do to help Gabriel, but the more time she spends in his company, the more convinced she becomes that his mania – the like of which she has never seen before –and his symptoms of battle fatigue are not related.

Gabriel himself greets Penelope’s theories with skepticism, and is reluctant to accept her help – not through any misplaced sense of male pride, but rather because he is almost convinced of his own insanity and doesn’t want to do her harm. But she overcomes his objections with a mixture of compassion and good, old-fashioned common sense; she very sensibly explains to him what she proposes by way of treatment, encouraging him to talk to her about his thoughts and experiences.

But Gabriel has his share of intuition as well, and Penelope soon discovers that this is going to be a two-way healing process. She has spent the last two years working with men suffering from mental illness, partly as a way to try to atone for her failure to help her husband who suffered from what we would today call Bi-Polar Disorder, and who committed suicide a mere six months into their marriage.

This may be a romance, but Heather Snow has chosen to deal with some dark themes and she does so very successfully. Gabriel and Penelope are strong, likeable characters who (for the most part) behave in a realistic manner. Penelope is intelligent and intuitive; she knows she doesn’t have all the answers and that it’s possible Gabriel will never be cured. He’s a very appealing hero – honorable but broken, and his PTSD is presented in a credible manner. With Penelope’s help, he begins to take small steps on the road to recovery and I found it really heart-warming to read of the delight he takes in each small success and of his gradually building confidence. But he and Penelope know there’s no miracle cure, realizing instead that it’s a long process that may involve backward as well as forward steps.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed into one full of genuine affection and mutual understanding. Gabriel has been carrying a torch for Penelope ever since they first met, and some of the tenderest moments in the book were those in which he told her how she’d acted as his light in the darkness and been his talisman in times of despair. I liked that Penelope was honest with herself about her physical attraction to Gabriel. She’s been married and isn’t afraid to admit to sexual desire – although I’ll admit that perhaps her treatment for his claustrophobia was rather unorthodox.

One of the things I thought came across really well was just how powerless Gabriel was. This is a man’s world, and in the majority of historical novels one reads, the men hold all the power and the women have none. But here is one of the rare instances when a man could be as helpless to dictate his own fate as a woman. Because Gabriel was suspected of insanity, it would have been a fairly simple matter to strip him of his wealth, his lands and his title – his very identity – and he could do nothing to prevent it. Penelope was similarly helpless in the face of male authority, which really ratcheted up the tension as she realized she was racing against time to get Gabriel away to prevent his being locked up forever.

Woven through the love story is a plot strand which shows us of what life was often like for the rank-and-file soldiers returning from the battlefield; how hard it was for them to get work and medical treatment if needed and how it could be even worse for their wives and families. The scenes which tell of the fates of dozens of the women and children left behind are quite horrifying – and Heather Snow pulls no punches when it comes to Gabriel’s final revelation about his last battle.

For those interested in the historical accuracy of stories like this, there’s some interesting background information about the different theories and treatments of mental illness prevalent at this time in the author’s note – she’s obviously done her homework!

Sweet Madness is a very-well written, well-developed story, which tackles a difficult subject without sugar-coating it or dismissing it as soon as the perfect happy ending appears on the horizon. The characterization is strong and consistent, and while I think the dénouement came a little out of left-field, I can’t deny that the author had set it up earlier in the book, so maybe it was just my being dense that meant I didn’t see it coming.

In any case, I am giving this book a wholehearted thumbs up. It’s tragic, romantic and ultimately uplifting, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading more by this author.

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