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The Rose Grower, by Michelle de Krestser.

February 12, 2014

The Rose Grower, by Michelle de Krester.  Bantam (2001), Edition: Bantam Trade pbk. ed, Paperback, 336 pages.

A historical novel of love and betrayal set in rural France during the French Revolution.

Michelle de Krester grew up in Sri Lanka and now lives in Australia, but neither of these places appear in this early novel of hers.  I am hesitant to claim the book for my South Asian or Australian Challenges.  In The Rose Grower, she has created a story set in southwestern France from 1789 to 1799 as the French Revolution broke out and turned into a “reign of terror.”  If we know anything about the French Revolution, we know the events that happened in Paris.  By choosing a setting “seven days by four-horse coach” from Paris, de Krester resolves some problems of historical fiction.  She is able to capture the mood and patterns of the time without fictionalizing the leaders and events that left historical evidence.  Doing so, of course, means that de Krester has had to do immense amounts of research in a variety of sources, but the effort pays off in the end.  Reading this book makes the reader feel the story might really have happened.

The major characters in the book are distinctive and well-drawn.  Sophie, the rose grower, is the middle daughter of an aristocratic but poor family who live in the family estate, Montsignac, near a village in Gascony.  She is tall, awkward, and devoted to cultivating roses.

Think of her: a girl with just enough education to awaken curiosity but not nearly enough to satisfy it, a woman with neither beauty nor wealth and therefore little prospect of marriage. Think of her days: the unimaginable, unavoidable drudgeries…. Think of her world: elsewhere, horizons were expanding—oxygen had been isolated, the Pacific mapped, absolute monarchy dismantled—but science and history filtered down to Montsignac as anecdote and rumor, easily out weighted by a village scandal or the damage caused by an early frost.

You can see why Sophie needed roses.

Sophie’s sisters were not like her.  Claire, eldest, was a vapid beauty married to a rabid monarchist who leaves to fight for the King.  Mathilde is still a child when the book opens, a precocious child who speaks with the wry wit which infuses de Krestser’s writing.  Their widowed father preferred Voltaire to Rousseau, but above all preferred fine foods.  Stephen, a young American with French relatives, literally drops into the family circle when his balloon catches fire.  He is a charming if rather ungrounded man, an artist who cares for beauty.  In contrast, Joseph is the village doctor.  Although he grew up in poverty, a charitable patron had enabled him to study medicine.  He is the one most involved with the shifting local politics of revolution.

De Krester is a writer whose words delight me. She writes in an unusual style, one which I thoroughly enjoy.  She is never obscure, but she writes with a sense of reserve, leaving readers to figure out what is going on.  We all know, for example, who is the father of the child Claire is carrying, but de Krester doesn’t tell us outright.  The text is broken up into short chapters, most only a couple of pages, which jump abruptly from person or event to another, giving us multiple perspectives on what is happening.  Often we have to figure out whose thoughts we are following or what is going on.  While such a style could be confusing or difficult, in de Krestser’s graceful hands it merely pulls readers into the characters and the story.

 The Rose Grower is full of period detail but the way the characters react to events remains the focus.  Love, sometimes unrequited, is a major theme, but so is betrayal and tragedy.  It is a story we see too often in today’s world: a community living more or less peacefully together turning violently on each other.  Yet this is not a sad book.  People learn to live their lives day by day in the face of forces that invade from outside and change them.  But they survive, most of them.

I strongly recommend The Rose Grower to all who enjoy historical novels and appreciate literature that is well-written and distinctive.

I have also read and loved de Krester’s The Hamilton Case, set in Sri Lanka. (My review)   I also plan to read her Question of Travel which was awarded the top Australian literary award, the Miles Franklin last year.


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