This novel by Leila Meacham has many things that I like in a good read. It takes place over a number of years and over a couple of generations, the location is on a cotton plantation in east Texas (and I do like books that take place in the south), and there is lots of drama and angst. A good, meaty read, one would think.
But the reason I would be in a fight with myself is that on the one hand, there were so many things NOT to like about this book, but on the other hand, I couldn’t put it down. I think that speaks to the quality of the writing.
The story features three families who establish, and basically run, a small town in east Texas. One family is in the timber business; one family is in the textile business; and one family owns a cotton plantation. The families remain loyal to their roots, and get along splendidly.
Problems arise when the patriarch of the cotton plantation family dies and leaves the plantation to his daughter – wholly bypassing his wife and his son. He does this because he recognizes that only his daughter Mary loves the plantation as much as he did and will not sell it off as he knows his wife and son would.
An unforgiveable offense, and one that shapes the novel’s story.
There are a couple of things that annoyed me about the book. One is that Meacham begins the book with the ending. In other words, there is no surprise at all since you know that Mary dies and doesn’t leave the plantation farm to her niece, as everyone expected her to. The idea, I believe, is that the author lays out that fact, and then tells the story to explain why Mary made that choice.
The second problem I had with the book is that I think I was supposed to like the characters more than I did. Book reviewers compare Roses to Gone With the Wind and Mary to Scarlett O’Hara. The difference, I think, is that while Scarlett was annoying at the beginning of the novel, her love of, and commitment to, Tara seems believable, perhaps because of the story’s setting during the Civil War. I couldn’t help it – I found Mary’s commitment to Somerset and willingness to put it before everything else simply silly and short-sighted.
I also couldn’t understand why Mary’s mother and brother were so angry that Somerset hadn’t been left to them. It isn’t like Mary didn’t provide generously.
Finally, throughout the novel, we are told just how much Rachel loved and respected and trusted Mary, her husband Ollie and their dear friend and timber baron Percy. Suddenly, when Somerset isn’t willed to her as expected and she learns a secret about Percy and Mary (a secret that it seems every single other person in Texas knows) she totally turns on them. It never seems realistic to me that Rachel wouldn’t simply go to Percy and ask if it is true.
Having said all of these bad things about the book, I will tell you that I liked it more than I didn’t. As I mentioned, I enjoyed the writing style, and the story kept me reading. It’s a lengthy endeavor, but if you like epic novels, you are liable to enjoy this story.
There is a prequel that was written after the publication of Roses. I will consider reading it as it might help set the stage for some of the actions that transpire in Roses.
I think the book would be a good one for a book club discussion, as indicated by my own conflicting feelings.
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