Top critical review
Lots about roses, sanitation and food, but too little tension
on 25 February 2013
Michelle de Kretser's first novel, published in 2000, is set in Gascony between 1789-94. Sophie, the youngest daughter of the aristocratic but poor Sainte-Pierre family and not a beauty, has the unusual ambition of breeding a repeat-flowering crimson rose (no guesses what the author will relate this to).
At the start of the novel an American balloonist, Fletcher, crashes onto their estate out of the sky (might this be a sign of the Reign of Terror to come?) and, whilst convalescing, gets to know the family and is attracted to Sophie's sister, Claire, who is unhappily married to a bad lot, who gets his comeuppance, but is nevertheless beautiful.
Joseph Morel, a young and progressive doctor, lacking confidence and ever so humble, meets the family and harbours a secret passion for the rose-grower. The story that develops is part love story, part historical novel and part a channel for imparting a great deal of information about rose breeding, political and social developments in France around the time of the Revolution, the food and drink of the time, and new ideas about the role of hygiene in reducing diseases.
Whilst the novel is set in near the town of Castelnau, which could be any of the 30 or more mentioned in Wikipedia, the author cleverly brings in events in Paris and the wider countryside through newspaper reports, local discussions and debate, and by establishing conditions in the town that parallel those of the capital and lead to its own "mini-Terror". The novel is divided into sections describing actions and activities that occur each year. Despite the reality of the political and social acceleration of the revolutionary fervour into large-scale terror over this period, the author's style remains low-key thus preventing the necessary build-up of tension.
It is clear that a great deal of research has gone into this novel (as is evident from two pages of sources) but, not infrequently, it appears in rather stilted discussions between characters about the Revolutionary calendar, illness and medicine, and, of course, roses. Morel is driven by the aim of improving the health of the local population by reforming sanitation at which point it will no doubt be taken up across the country. Sophie, when she is not pruning and splicing, is aware of society's opinion of unmarried women and wants to change this. However, neither character really comes to life. I also had some difficulty in the first half of the novel working out which of the three sisters was talking or thinking since I found their voices insufficiently differentiated.
For readers who like dogs, Brutus appears regularly and keeps the Saint-Pierre family on their toes. There is a villain who tries very poorly to hide his wicked character but, since his exposure is a key feature of the latter part of the novel, this also fails to create tension. Even more frustrating, de Kretser breaks off in the last score of pages to include a letter which Morel sends to Sophie. It is almost as if the author is determined to keep the ending unemotional and low-key. Given that this is her first novel, perhaps her editor might have been more assertive?
It is interesting to have the period, which is most often described from a Parisienne perspective, presented from a distance that is both geographic and societal.
The final few pages look back from the comparative quiet of 1799, tie up the loose emotional ends and inform the reader whether the crimson rose is a reality or not. I am not sure that I cared very much either way. I certainly disagree with the Guardian critic who writes "... her final pages are a triumph".
It would be crass to suggest that this is novel for women rather than men since I think that either readership would benefit from being carried along by a much tighter narrative. I would certainly be ready to try another novel by this author, providing it was not set in the past, and I see that she has now published three more: The Hamilton Case, 2003; The Lost Dog, 2007 and Questions of Travel, 2012.