Do you ever look so forward to savouring something that you almost dread consuming it? Like you worry that your excitement is bigger than the satisfaction of having the thing? Or you’re saving it for just the right moment, but the Right Moment never comes? That was what happened with this book. It’s difficult and expensive to get here in the States, but a friend in Australia sent it to me in September, 2019, and I just let it sit, Schroedinger’s literary experience, both read and unread simply by owning it. It’s silly, I know. But I found a moment, after mowing down three books since the first of January, and took the plunge.
I’ll start off by saying that this book isn’t what I thought it was when I started reading. Kate Forsyth had been working on and marketing a fairytale retelling/historical novel like Bitter Greens, the book that introduced me to her, at or around the same time. That one is called The Beast’s Garden, and is about the PreRaphaelites (my favourite era of art) and Beauty and the Beast. So me, right?
Well, The Blue Rose is much more of a historical romance than anything resembling a fairytale, and is set during the French Revolution, which, if you’ve seen my video on Napoleon’s love letters, you’ll know that French history is not my area of expertise. So, I was a little hesitant going in.
The main character is Viviane, or more correctly, Heloise-Rozenn-Viviane de la Faitaud de Ravoisier, a marquis’ daughter from Brittany. She is kind of a wild child at the beginning, but it’s because she’s been sheltered. As the story goes on, we see her strength, loyalty, resourcefulness, and hope shine through everything.
This story primarily recounts the events of the French Revolution from Viviane’s perspective as a member of the aristocracy, so we live in her fear, her grief, and her numbness, while at the same time, understanding and sympathetising with the revolutionaries.
Her love interest is a Welshman trained in designing English style gardens. I had forgotten that this book had a Welshman in it, and since Covid forced me to cancel my travel plans to visit the UK, that stung a little. There were more than a few places where I identified stronger with David Stronach than with Viviane.
What’s cool about David is that, according to the author’s note, he was a real person, who really sailed on the Lion in search of roses to take back to Kew Gardens. Of course, Forsyth took some liberties with his personality and love life, but that’s the prerogative of a fiction writer. He’s a dreamer- imaginative, passionate, and determined. He has a good strop for a good chunk of the story, but he comes around.
The bulk of the other characters serve to illustrate the intensity of the Revolution and the reasons for it, from the cruel and greedy duke and the out-of-touch Royal Family, to the disgruntled Chateau staff and the frothing revolutionaries. In China we are confronted by the cold formality of the mandarins insisting on due respect being paid their culture butting up against the pig-headed English ambassador, who refused to acknowledge the Chinese as civilized at all, much less in a way comparable to England. In the middle, stood a wizened old widower, who was just trying to survive a world on the brink of near-total collapse at the very beginning of the Opium Wars that would devastate China.
The Blue Rose is split pretty evenly into three parts: Brittany, Paris, and China. At the Chateau de Belisima-sur-la-Lac, Viviane’s mother’s ancestral home, life is bucolic, laid back, and safe; and Viviane spends her days frolicking with her dog, practicing herbalism on the local people, avoiding her aunt, and falling in love with the English gardener.
After her wedding to the Duke, she moves to Paris, which is as much a culture shock for the reader as it is for her. The Revolution is already underway, but her father and new husband believe it will be quelled and they will be rewarded for their loyalty, so they stick close to the doomed royal family. Paris is loud, dirty, cramped, and dangerous- full of violence and hostility. Within the city, we also get a glimpse of multiple jails and prisons, residences in different quarters, and even a few scenes in the Palace of Versailles.
In David’s chapters, we see a bit of the route the Lion traveled from England to China, and a bit of Peking (now known as Beijing), before settling in the Thirteen Factories in Canton (now known as Guangzhou).
I don’t like to dwell on plot because I don’t like to spoil things, but in this case, being pretty historical, I don’t think it’ll hurt much. Y’all know by now that the French people got fed up with their monarchy and instigated a bloody uprising that killed thousands of wealthy and aristocratic people, replacing the feudal system with a more democratic republic, that still stands today.
You may be less aware of the Chinese half of things, and I myself only knew the broad swathes, like the fact that China was locked up tight against the west and that Europe broke into it by basically getting the people hooked on opium, forcing the government to open trade. It’s a very sad and awful story, rooted in racism and greed.
The main theme of this story, often repeated, is that ‘nothing is impossible to a valiant heart.’ That was something that David’s grandmother used to say to him, and he gave Viviane a ring, bearing the same inscription. At many times throughout the book, all hope seems lost, especially since we the audience already know the history, but somehow, against impossible odds, the valiant hearts win out.
I discovered Kate Forsyth because of Bitter Greens, and of all the fantastical things in that book, what stuck out to me the most was the food. This author has a way of describing food…just don’t read on an empty stomach, trust me. She just has really excellent descriptive abilities that really make you feel like you’re there.
There’s a lot I want to say on the significance I found in this book, and that’s why it has taken me so long to post this review. I think if I’d read it when I first got it, I would have enjoyed it on face value, and that would have been it. But I read it in March of 2021. The world’s is different, just as Viviane’s world was changing for her.
On January 6, an armed mob attempted to overthrow the government at the Capitol Building in Washington DC while members of Congress were counting the electoral college votes. Watching the crowd surge past Capitol Police and stroll through the Hall of Statues, I was reminded of a line from the 2012 Ben Affleck movie, Argo, about the Iran Hostage crisis: ‘Oh god, they’re coming over the walls.’ That line stuck out to me because in that moment, I felt that surreal sense of dread, of watching something impossible happening and not knowing how to feel. The calmness in that actress’ voice, almost more bemused than terrified, though she was certainly terrified, struck a chord with me. Several scenes in this book hit me the same way. The horror and the improbability of so many things were not dulled by the knowledge of historical events.
Also, a lot of synchretism has surrounded this book, while I was reading it. Forsyth mentions the changes in fashion that would eventually lead to what we now call Regency style, though the historical reasons are very different from the ones I describe in my most recent free novella, Underdressed, which had the same results. I saw on Facebook yesterday a photo essay on Olympe de Gouges, who plays a not-insignificant role in The Blue Rose. And China Roses, my favourite Enya song, has been in my head for a week solid, and I’m not mad about it.
Overall, the book is intense. There are a few scenes that are happy, peaceful, and wondrous, but they don’t lessen the heaviness. There were a few places where I had to take a break because even I knew what was coming next and just…wasn’t up for it. While I do feel like this book is important in these times of upheaval, I would recommend reading it on good mental health days.
Did you guys know that I’ve been to China? In February of 2019, my mother and I went to help my sister move out. She had been teaching English for nearly a year, and we thought that a great opportunity to visit. We saw Hong Kong Disneyland, a two-story tea mall in Shenzhen (which is close to the Thirteen Factories), and fed pandas in Chengdu, among other things. I promise I didn’t smuggle any rosehips back in jars of rice 😉 Let me know if you’d be interested in a blog post about that!