The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth

I always look forward to a new Kate Forsyth book coming out, knowing I will be transported into the past and lose myself in a mesmerising story. The Blue Rose is no exception, taking the reader back, in the first instance, to revolutionary France where a young woman named Viviane lives in a deteriorating chateau with a mean and controlling Great Aunt and a small staff of retainers, one of whom is like a brother to her. But when a Welshman, David, is hired by her distant, dissolute father (who spends most of his time in Paris) to prepare the gardens according to current fashions so he might bring his new, young heiress wife to the country, Viviane finds in David a sincere and kind friend. What starts as friendship swiftly transforms into something more, but Viviane knows that should her father learn of her growing feelings for the Welsh gardener, a man well below her in terms of social standing, any dreams she has will not only be shattered, but David’s life will be in danger. 

When Viviane’s father returns unexpectedly, not even Viviane could predict his reaction, and what subsequently unfolds. Whisked away to Paris, married and forced to comply with her father and husband’s every wish, Viviane believes David and what life with him promised her is lost forever. But as rebellion against the French monarchy and the aristocracy foments and political forces rise to crush the oppressors and anyone who stands in their way, Viviane learns that her father, let alone David’s fate, are the least of her worries…

Without giving too much away (unlike the blurb on Goodreads which needs to come with a major spoiler alert. I only just read what is said and it gives away the entire plot of the book!), The Blue Rose is a sweeping historical tale of love, loss, class, exploration, discovery, cultural differences, political turmoil and bloodshed. Not only does the action take place against the murderous and bloody backdrop of the French Revolution, but the narrative (told from two different points of view) also shifts to China and the opening of trade routes through the mysterious interior. Botany also plays a part in the story but, it wouldn’t be a Forsyth novel if fairytales (in this instance, the story of “The Blue Rose”), in all their metaphorical and cultural significance, didn’t also play a huge role.

This was a lovely book that, with the exception of some of the barbarous activities of the revolutionaries and the wilful indifference and cruelty of the aristocracy that led to the uprising in the first place, was easy to read in the sense that the narrative flowed. At times, the characters functioned like archetypes, vessels for the larger meanings they carry and which are often symbolic – much like the roses in the tale. One example is David, whose reaction to Viviane’s choices seem at first churlish if not downright childish. But like any hero, David has to undergo a journey of transformation – the external and physical voyage to China becoming a metaphor for a grand interior metamorphosis. In the same way, the villainous roles – especially Viviane’s father, seemed too awful and selfish to be real – however, this is not the case as any reading of that period of history (and others) will demonstrate. The indifference of some members of the upper classes to the plight of the lower ones is astounding and shameful to contemporary readers – Forsyth captures this utter selfishness and wilful indifference well. The descriptions of both the chaos that was Paris and France for the relevant years are deeply disturbing and it’s testament to both Forsyth’s research and her talent as a writer that they’re also very visceral. 

The parts of the novel that take place in China are fascinating for their historical veracity. The aura of mystique and, dare I say, majesty is well captured as are the grand ambitions and colonial authoritarianism of the English – something that simply didn’t work in China. The question of just what and who is “civilised” and what imperial power actually means, hovers at the edges of nearly every interaction and provides a stimulus for thought. 

Overall, I really enjoyed The Blue Rose for its sense of history, grandeur and exploration of culture and humanity, which come together in what’s a magical tale. 

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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

This was a simply astounding book. Beautifully written, featuring a heroine, Alma Whittaker, whom you grow to love and admire as she matures into a capable, resourceful and kind woman across two tumultuous centuries, The Signature of All Things manages to be both intensely personal and soul-searching as well as broad and even sweeping in scope.

imgres-27Commencing in England during the eighteenth century with the tale of Alma’s father, Henry’s, humble beginnings and rise to power, wealth and status, it shifts to the early days of Philadelphia, USA, where Henry establishes his family/dynasty and wields his not inconsiderable influence in society, and manages to increase his already formidable fortune. Whether it’s because of his class background, Henry is not tied by the usual social structures that dictate what a female can and cannot do. Having found himself a clever and capable wife, he is determined his daughter should have everything his money can buy – including an eclectic education, one that constantly stimulates her questioning nature and challenges her searing intellect.

Plain, exceptionally tall and with a masculine build, and with a mind that knows no bounds, Alma becomes a gifted botanist, driven by her need to discover, to know and understand how the world around her and evolution works. When other people come into her life that don’t share her view of the world, Alma sees them as another challenge to be studied rather than overcome and so her life is broadened in numerous ways.

Without spoiling the wonderful plot, the reader follows the decades of Alma’s life – from the US to exploring the globe and the people she encounters and how this changes and confronts her. Old ways of viewing the world no longer stand and Alma is at the vanguard of new methodologies and praxis, her sex being both a blessing and a curse when it comes to insights and taken seriously within a male-dominated profession.

After reading and disliking Eat, Pray Love (I know, I know – I wrote a column about it in 2010 – you can read it here if you like, but I found the white, whiny and privileged position hard to stomach) I never thought I would read another Gilbert book. My dear friend and fellow book lover, Kerry, advised me too and I am grateful she did. The prose is sumptuous, the telling spell-binding. I didn’t want this adventure to end and I found that even now, weeks later, Alma resides in both my head and heart.

A magical tale about science, family, love, discovery, philosophy, science and ways of being in the world and with each other. Cannot recommend highly enough. I also read it’s been commissioned as a mini-series by the same people who produced Downtown Abbey. Cannot wait.

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