Imagine a chemical treatment process that could suck everything that is emotionally resonant out of a work of art. The process would change nothing about a novel’s plot, characters, or setting – about any of the elements that typically get discussed in ninth grade English – but there would be something missing: a certain oomph, a certain je ne sais quoi. Now imagine this process being performed on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.
The result would be Leila Meacham’s Roses.
Both novels are concerned with the circular nature of time within families – with the ways that certain patterns repeat themselves over and over in successive generations. Steinbeck’s primary trope is a series of allusions to the Old Testament; Meacham’s is her grounding of her characters in Britain’s fourteenth-century Wars of the Roses, to which the book’s title alludes. Both novels emphasize the corruption that can come from obsessive connections to the land. Steinbeck’s novel is better. But then again, you knew that.
In Roses, the town of Howbutker, Texas (which, like Springfield in The Simpsons, grows and shrinks depending on the needs of each particular scene; at times it is a tiny hamlet, but at other times debutantes in Atlanta are well aware of the fashionable wares of its local department store) was settled in the early nineteenth century by the descendants of the Lancaster and York families who fought one another during the Wars of the Roses. The Warwick family is descended from the house of York, and the Toliver family is descended from the house of Lancaster.
And the DuMont family is descended from some Frenchman that the Warwicks and Tolivers found wandering the roads on their way to Texas. But they are important too.
Transplanted in North America, the descendants of the warring families want to continue to honor their heritage without extending their mutual enmity, so they transform the original symbols of the two families – the white rose for the Warwicks and the red rose for the Tolivers – into a system of apology and forgiveness. Here’s how it works: Both families grow both red and white roses in their gardens. If any member of either family wants to apologize to any other member, he sends that person a red rose. The person who receives the red rose is expected to send a white rose in return to signify forgiveness. The families discuss the possibility of using pink roses to signify a refusal to forgive, but ultimately they agree that to grow pink roses for this purpose would suggest that they planned to hold a lot of grudges toward one another, so no one grows pink roses. But that’s not to say that they don’t figure in the plot.
In other words, the roses provide the families with a way to apologize to and forgive one another without actually having to look each other in the face and speak the required words. This is great! Why hasn’t MY family thought of this??
The novel begins with the readings of two wills – one in 1985 (the novel’s “real time”) and one in 1916, related in the first of several very lengthy flashbacks. In 1916, Mary Toliver inherits the entirety of her family’s cotton plantation, with the exception of a small piece of riverfront land that her father grants to her brother. As a result of this surprising inheritance, Mary’s relationship with her mother and brother is broken, more or less irreparably. Let’s just say that there are some pink roses in her future.
In 1985, the ailing Mary Toliver (now Mary Toliver DuMont; she marries the impotent grandson of the aimless Frenchman) surprises her family in a similar way, this time bypassing other more likely candidates in order to bequeath the land to her great-niece, Rachel. Once again, her will prompts tides of anger and resentment throughout the family. It is in these relationships between these patriarchs and matriarchs and their descendants (both favored and unfavored) that I see some of the most significant parallels between Meacham’s novel and Steinbeck’s as well as some of the more interesting moments in this novel. The Old Testament abounds with stories of favored sons and younger sons stealing birthrights from older sons – Cain and Abel; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and all of his nasty brothers; even the “favored son” status of David over Saul in the eyes of God. Steinbeck uses this tradition to add resonance to his characters in East of Eden, and Meacham makes an attempt to do so as well.
In writing Roses, Leila Meacham has done what is probably a fairly remarkable thing: she has added a completely neutral object to the universe. Think about it: how many works of art or other human creations can you think of that are neither beautiful nor ugly, morally righteous nor morally offensive, useful nor useless, didactic nor obtuse? Though occasionally maudlin (as in this moment in which a dying sixteen year-old gasps out these dying words to his football teammate: “I’ll get back, man. You may not see me, but I’ll be there. You keep on blasting holes in that line” ), overall this novel is neither well written nor poorly written, and its characters are neither especially original nor strikingly hackneyed. The symbolism of the roses is simplistic, but Meacham uses it relatively skillfully, and her use of some Old Testament figures makes me neither gasp nor cringe.
The early books of the Old Testament are, among many other things, a foundation myth, just as this novel is the story of the three founding families of the fictional Howbutker, Texas. Genesis and Exodus are also very much about the human relationship to the land. In Roses, the Toliver land that provides the conflict in both 1916 and 1985 is supposedly “cursed” – a detail that I find much less interesting than the ways that land drives a wedge between family members and almost takes the role of a lover in the lives of both Mary Toliver DuMont and Rachel Toliver. Having knowingly married an impotent man, Mary’s relationship with the land takes on a physicality and intimacy that seems to satisfy her in the place of a sexual relationship. In Rachel’s case, she uses the constant demands of farming as an excuse to forego intimate relationships – in spite of the presence of the apparently irresistible Matthew Warwick – and can only find fulfillment in human relationships after she is no longer in possession of the land.
I think I would have enjoyed this novel more if I hadn’t been so constantly aware of the parallels to East of Eden. Meacham makes no direct allusions to Steinbeck’s novel that I could catch, but I find it hard to believe that she didn’t have this novel in mind on some level, possibly subconsciously, as she was creating the world surrounding Howbutker. And of course very few of us are capable to measuring up to Steinbeck’s genius for writing novels both grand and commonplace. Meacham aims for this kind of counterpoint – and there is nothing wrong with being ambitious – but the result is a flattened, hollow shell of what Steinbeck created.