Rose MacGregor laughed and shouldn't have. Frances, it seemed, was going to cry. Frances Dupre, leaning against the kitchen counter of Rose's sublet in a twisting old neighborhood in St. Paul on a muggy August night, held a full wine glass that she didn't seem to be drinking from, but rather posing with as the tears trickled down her face. She wept because Rose was lucky in love, while she, Frances, was not. This was ridiculous, something Frances had invented out of thin air.
Thus begins THE ROSE VARIATIONS, a novel penned by Marisha Chamberlain (SOHO Press), a playwright, poet, and now novelist from Minnesota. The story follows the professional struggle of Rose MacGregor, a fledgling composer who navigates the wily paths of academia during the mid-seventies, a decade when women were just beginning to break through the 'glass ceiling' of promotion and tenure. The theme explored throughout is the balance of heart and mind, and how to find fulfillment in both. Rose is determined to stay independent, which gives her plenty of room to struggle with loneliness, ambition, and even at times love. Her quest is all too human - to answer the complex question of happiness.
A number of colorful characters support her journey: Alan, gay department colleague discovering his own balance in life and love; Frances, secretary of the Department who has a love affair with the married Department Chair; Lila, the bearded cello prodigy who returns from self-imposed sabbatical to play Rose's compositions; Guy, the stonemason who triggers love and lust in Rose; Natalie, Rose's unbalanced sister who has a niece out-of-wedlock; and the mysterious piano tuner.
The writing has moments of lyricism, especially when the author waxes eloquent on music. Indeed, there is a lilt to the story, a fine melody that wraps around the reader. I love music, was myself a performance major for a year, and this focus was what initially attracted me to purchase the book. Dialogue provides momentum; Chamberlain's playwrighting skills are enviably illustrated in her first novel.
That said, I found much of the story predictable, particularly the events shaping the relationships between the characters, some of which bordered on cliche. The conclusion left me vaguely unsatisfied, for it provided no new insight into the perpetual dilemma faced by ambituous women who wish to 'have it all'.
Rose has so much to share; this was a rare instance when I wished the story was told in first person or, at the least, close third. But the story is narrated in a rather formal third voice, staying true to Rose's point of view most of the time. But there are times when we (satisfyingly) get into Rose's head, like when she allows herself to experience love:
She needed stillness in which to sink down. Instead, she felt herself going up and up, groping upward in her mind, past Frances, up past tenure, up, up, groping her way up the face of the moon, no handholds nor footholds, just a dazzling, slippery surface, and an upward urge no one could sustain.
The Author... Marisha Chamberlain is a playwright, poet, and fiction writer who lives in Minnesota. Scherazade, a stage play, won the Dramatists Guild/CBS National Award, and her book of poems, Powers, won a Minnesota Voices Award.
The Press... Soho Press is a New York based independent publishing company that "place(s) a high priority on publishing quality unsolicited materials from new writers." Their list is eclectic and edgy, with a strong emphasis on crime fiction (they're the US firm pubbing Stuart Neville's THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST - yay!) and literary fiction. Read their Blog. This is a press whose offerings I covet for my shelves.
Sing your way to the closest indie bookstore (or click yourself directly to the source) and enjoy THE ROSE VARIATIONS.