Review: The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway

The “rose” who requires rather careful care and handling in this women’s fiction novel by Margaret Dilloway is Gal Garner, and she very definitely has thorns. But just like the flowers that she nurtures so carefully, there are definitely rewards for navigating your way through Gal’s prickly, thorny life.

You can learn a lot about actual rose gardening while reading The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, or at least, rose breeding and rose gardening in Southern California. Because that’s where this book takes place. There are snippets (how appropriate) from rose care books at the head of each chapter, and they seem totally real.

Gal Garner certainly needs care, and lots of it. Perhaps even more care than the roses she breeds so painstakingly.

Gal is 36. She has been a kidney dialysis patient for ten very long years. She’s had two transplants and both have failed. Her life has been defined by a childhood illness that was not caught in time, one that destroyed both her kidneys. Her world has been defined by the limitations of her disease.

And not just her world, but also her parents, and her older sister Becky. The family drama will play out again, one more summer, against a real rose, not rose-colored, backdrop.

Ten years is a long time for a dialysis patient. Gal is on borrowed time. She needs a kidney. Her mother has already given one. The rest of her family are not an option.

Gal is a biology teacher at a private high school. She is painstaking, smart, witty, acerbic. She suffers no fools because she has no patience and no time. She most explicitly does not grade on the curve. Her students learn or they fail. Their parents want her gone. Her life is closing in.

All she has are the roses she breeds. Her goal is one rose, a rare Hulthemia, that she can get voted into the All-America Rose Selections. A successful test rose would be worth a fortune. She could stop teaching.

But instead of a successful test rose, in the spring she gets her teenage niece as a house guest. Her sister Becky has become irresponsible. Again. Becky has left for Hong Kong. Supposedly for work. And sent Riley to her Aunt Gal for months, with no warning. And with no thought as to whether Gal can handle a 15-year-old girl.

Gal can’t turn her away. Riley is her family, even if she hasn’t seen her since she was three.

And even if she looks just like her mother. Gal’s sister Becky, whom Gal is still angry with. Angry for her irresponsibility. Angry with for just being healthy. Angry with for just being able to have a child, and then for throwing her away.

Riley has raised herself. Becky has never been responsible. Gal feels guilty that she didn’t do more, all those years ago. So she tries now. But they are both set in their ways.

Riley isn’t a child any more. She’s almost a woman. And Gal spends every other night in the hospital having dialysis. But needing each other is more than either of them has ever had.

Roses grow towards the sun.

Escape Rating B+: The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns was a little slow to get started. At first, Gal is not a likable character. On the one hand, the reader sympathizes with her because of her illness, but on the other hand, she makes herself as unpleasant as possible to everyone around her. She’s so busy making sure that no one feels sorry for her she acts like a jerk, knowing they can’t retaliate because of her illness.

The women’s intergenerational drama is one that’s been done before. Gal’s illness dominated the family dynamic, so Becky felt left out and acted out. What was interesting, and what makes the story work, was the way that things played out in the next generation. Even though Riley looks like Becky, Gal doesn’t visit her mother’s sins on her. Nor does she treat her like a child after a few false starts. Gal needs her too much.

Their need for each other makes them forge a totally different dynamic, a better one than the sisters had. It works.  There is a happy ending of sorts, but not a huge one. And that’s the way it should be.

***Disclaimer: I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.

If you want to join this month’s discussion of  The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns on the BlogHer Book Club, you can join the discussion by following this link to the Book Club.