The Rose Grower

Michelle de Kretser, Author
Michelle de Kretser, Author Carroll & Graf Publishers $25 (448p) ISBN 978-0-7867-0733-1
Paperback - 323 pages - 978-0-553-38121-4
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In an ambitious first novel, de Kretser records five years of the French Revolution (1789-1794) from the perspective of one family in southern France. Relying on passive recitation rather than action, however, her writing is neither nuanced nor direct enough to meet the challenge. Even before the uprisings, Sophie de Saint-Pierre's aristocratic but ruined family have been reduced to living in their rundown country estate outside of Castelnau, a small provincial town. Capable and kind but too plain and impoverished to attract the attention of suitors, Sophie expresses her passionate nature by tending a magnificent rose garden. When American artist Stephen Fletcher crash-lands his hot-air balloon in the Saint-Pierre's yard, his attentions are immediately captured by Sophie's beautiful older sister, Claire, whose unhappy marriage leaves her vulnerable to Stephen's courtship. Sophie pines for Stephen in silence, and doesn't notice that her own charms have at last been detected by Joseph Morel, a young physician. Joseph's humanitarian nature, humble upbringing and ideas for reforming contemporary medicine make him a prime candidate for revolutionary fervor, and he quickly becomes involved with Castelnau's pro-Revolution faction. This turn of events propels the Saint-Pierres out of their sequestered environment and into the political spotlight. De Kretser makes a valiant effort to paint an accurate picture of 18th-century life, and the book is grounded in atmospheric historical detail. However, the protagonists become defined by their broadly outlined positions, and eventually they are reduced to mere mouthpieces (Stephen for sanitation reform to prevent disease, Sophie for unmarried women, etc.) without internal conflict. Though the characters never really come to life, the novel's end gains momentum as the family finds its personal stake in the political turmoil. (June)
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