The 14th of July, 1789 - A date which would become famous as Bastille Day, a symbol of the uprising of the common man against the tyranny of the monarchs. The date would soon be etched in the pages of history, but in a small corner of France, the date is memorable too... for another reason. On that eventful day, “labourers working in the fields around Montsignac, a village in Gascony, saw a man fall out of the sky.” So begins the novel, “The Rose Grower” by Michelle De Kretser.
Stephen Fletcher, an American Balloonist, is the man who ‘fell out of the sky’. He is taken to the nearest house, the residence of the Saint Pierres, and Stephen proceeds to fall in love with the first face he sets eyes on – Claire, the eldest daughter, even though she is married and has a son by the rich and snobbish Hubert De Montferrant.
The Rose Grower in the title is Sophie, the second child, the plain girl, who stands no chance against the charms of her older and so much more beautiful sister. She is the one who runs the family, keeps it together, manages to eke out a living in the worsening situation, and still manages to grow roses, always creating new varieties, and carries in her heart, the dream of creating the perfect crimson rose. For,
“In eighteenth century Europe, crimson roses do not exist. There are red-purple roses, of course, and rosy reds, and a sumptuous deep pink overclouded with plum and mulberry.”
Sophie, all of 22 years, is all set to live out her life as an old maid, till the accident brings irreversible changes in her life. Even as Stephen falls in love with, and begins an affair with Claire, Sophie falls in love with the adventurous stranger. Meanwhile, a young, idealistic doctor from the poorest section of the village, Joseph Morel, finds himself inexplicably attracted to the girl. Joseph is poor and idealistic, but he is also ambitious and has big dreams of righting the wrongs of the world. Drawn into a group of well off revolutionaries, themselves a mirror of the regime they plan to overthrow, he constantly struggles with himself, both, in the matter of love, as well his beliefs and ideals.
Michelle De Kretser takes us through events as they occur in the lives of these people, and those around them, against the backdrop of the French Revolution. The story spans a decade, the most tumultuous time in the history of France. Their lives mirror the tumult, and the happenings around them inextricably link lives and fortunes together.
Stories related to the Holocaust or the French Revolution usually tend to be a grim reminder of the worst face of mankind, and the underlying tragedy looms over the situation all the time. It is the same with this one too, though Michelle De Kretser manages to keep the Revolution at a distance, chronicling the events as they take place, far from the serene and simple village. It is only when the events occur closer that we sense the change in mood, and even then, she keeps the tragedy at bay, usually with her description of the roses and the manner in which Sophie grafts them together, to bring out the best in varieties together, in a single rose. A rose so perfectly red... the perfect crimson... which will flower through the year... the flower she hopes to create... which she will name the only thing there is to look forward to – ‘L’Avenir – The Future’.
Michelle De Kretser’s poetic words are what make this book such a wonderful read. And the same words are what make the book and its characters stay with you, long after you have finished reading!
P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India