One Perfect Rose, by Mary Jo Putney

>> Friday, August 19, 2005

My group's chosen Author of the Month for August was an old favourite, Mary Jo Putney. Since the couple of books I have by her in my TBR are part of a series, and I've decided to wait until I have them all before starting them, I decided on a reread, One Perfect Rose, a spinoff of the Fallen Angels quartet.

Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton, has always taken the duties of his rank seriously--until shocking news sends him running from his isolating world of wealth and privilege to roam the countryside as an ordinary man. When he meets the lovely Rosalind Jordan, a foundling who has grown into an enchanting, compassionate woman, she stirs the deepest desires of his heart. Yet how can Stephen declare his love when he is haunted by the knowledge that made him flee his old life? And how can Rosalind risk loving a man who fulfills her secret dreams but can never be hers?
I hadn't reread OPR in a few years, but I'd read it so many times before that, that it was like visiting an old friend. I realized I still loved what I used to love about it, and that a certain little character quirk that used to annoy me still did. Still, a B+.

For those of you who haven't read this one, I should mention something that's cunningly hidden in the blurb above. As the book opens, our hero is told by his physician that he's mortally ill. A "tumefaction of the stomach and liver" (that's how it's described, IIRC) has developed, and he has, at most, 6 more months to live, and possibly less.

Understandably shaken, Stephen immediately takes off with the vague idea that being on his own and as a regular man will help him come to terms with his own mortality. After a few weeks, he runs into a troup of strolling players, which includes a beautiful woman he's instantly fascinated with, and when events conspire to make him have to stay with the troupe for a while, he decides to join them and spend a few weeks treading the boards with them (and spending time with the beautiful Rosalind).

Stephen is one amazing character. Anyone who's read the other books in the series, especially the one about Stephen's brother Michael, knows that the old duke, their father, was a grade-A bastard. As the heir, Stephen was raised to fit his mould. Any show of emotion was punished and arrogance and coldness was encouraged.

And given man's methods, it was a miracle Stephen turned out so well. He's grown into a lonely man, cut off from his own emotions, one who spent too many years of his life stuck in a cold, loveless marriage. However, many of his father's lessons just didn't take. He's a honourable, kind man, without one arrogant bone in his body (something which annoyed his father to no end). He's also a man who increasingly finds his past life (especially all those years spent with his late wife) empty and meaningless, and who is especially hard hit by realizing that, though he'd like to make some radical changes to his life, to make it more enjoyable, he just doesn't have time now.

When he meets Rosalind, he sees what he could have had even more clearly, and that just about kills him. Rosalind makes him feel things he never thought of feeling, and he fights his feelings for her as long as he can, thinking it's not fair to saddle her with a dying man. But the attraction between them is too powerful, and they end up getting married.

Rosalind is the perfect woman for Stephen. A foundling, she was taken in by Maria and Thomas Fitzgerald when they found the quiet three-year-old wondering the London wharfs alone, scavenging for food. Some 25 years later, Rosalind is an important part of the family. She doesn't have the Fitzgerald flair for the stage, but she's the one who takes care of the practicalities and does perform some of the minor parts.

She's a sensible, matter-of-fact widow with a very sunny disposition and an optimistic outlook, and just like Stephen, she finds herself tremendously attracted even knowing there's no future for them. When she finds out about Stephen's death sentence, she already cares about him too much to abandon him, and so she accepts his marriage proposal, even though she knows she'll have to watch him suffer until he dies.

Stephen and Rosalind's courtship and the first couple of months of her marriage are beautifully described. It's wonderfully bittersweet to see Stephen discover the feelings he's capable of, all the while knowing he just doesn't have time enough to enjoy them as he wants to enjoy them. And the same with Rosalind: after a failed marriage, she discovers what marriage to a truly good man can be like, and yet she knows it will be over within months.

And then, after a beautiful first couple of hundreds of pages, comes the ending. The way in which Stephen's illness is resolved is just brilliant, no complaints from me here (no spoilers, really, this is a romance novel so a HEA is to be expected). A miracle cure would have made me want to toss the book against the wall, but the way Putney goes about solving it was just perfect, and she drops more than enough clues throughout the book (I remembered what happened, so I was on the lookout for them).

What I didn't like at all, however, was the really unnecessary bit about Rosalind's past. Some spoilers now: Rosalind is revealed to be the lost daughter of a French count and his aristocratic English wife, killed during the Terror. It wasn't the feasibility of this that bothered me, or the coincidence of her finding out the truth (as Stephen says, it wasn't such a coincidence). What left a bad taste in my mouth was the apparent message that she had to be a noblewoman to be worthy of Stephen, that a common actress wouldn't have been good enough. To be fair, Stephen never thinks this, nor do any of the good characters, and maybe I'm being a bit too sensitive here, but I would have prefered for her to be a normal lowborn woman.

Other than that, One Perfect Rose really is pretty much perfect!

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