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

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Publisher: Berkley Books (Penguin)
Publish Date: Out Now in Trade paperback
How I got this book: Print copy from the publisher

Thirty-six-year-old Gal Garner lives a regimented life. Her job teaching biology and her struggle with kidney disease keep her toggling between the high school, the hospital, and her home on a strict schedule.

Only at home, in her garden, does Gal come alive. It’s here that she experiments with Hulthemia roses, painstakingly cross-pollinating various specimens in the hopes of creating a brand-new variation of spectacular beauty. But even her passion has a highly structured goal: Gal wants to win Queen of Show in a major competition and bring that rose to market.

Then one afternoon Gal’s teenaged niece Riley, the daughter of her estranged sister, arrives. Unannounced. Neither one of them will ever be the same.

Filled with gorgeous details of the art of rose breeding, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns is a testament to the redemptive power of love.

*blurb from Goodreads

        This book is a bit of a departure from my usual pleasure reading preferences (i.e, no romance, no action, or anything remotely supernatural). It’s a slice-of-life Fiction that follows Gal during a transitional time in her life when her niece comes to live with her set amongst the backdrop of her work as a teacher, her dreams of becoming an established rose breeder, and her routine visits to the dialysis center. The roses take center stage and become a metaphor for Gal’s life and personality. However, this story goes one step beyond metaphor and delves into character exploration in which the juxtaposition between subject matter and character merge in both the archetypal and allegorical realms. It will be difficult for me to discuss this book without also sharing a bit of my personal philosophy because that is the level at which I connected to this book. Hopefully, you will indulge me a bit in that.

        Gal experienced renal failure in her childhood, and as a result had received two different transplants over her lifetime. She has been waiting for a third transplant for the past eight years after the second one failed. This meant she had no choice but to undergo dialysis every other night until she received a new transplant. Her diet and water intake had to be strictly regimented as well which usually left her in a perpetual state of thirst. This rigidity extended beyond what she had to do for her health and pushed out into the world around her. One could argue that her illness precipitated this type of exacting schedule and therefore influenced the rest of her life. But that doesn’t fully explain her personality, her choice in hobbies and her approach to her professional life. Not everyone who has to live with chronic disease and strict care routines chooses to approach the rest of their life in a similarly restricted manner. But Gal applied this inflexibility to every aspect of her life.

        As a teacher, Gal felt her methods were correct, justifiable and left no room for feedback from the headmaster, or anyone else for that matter. She felt that parents wanted their children coddled and she wanted nothing to do with that. Her personality was as prickly as the thorns on a rose. She saw no need to compromise. People tended to disappoint her because they didn’t live up to her expectations. She carried the attitude that she was always right, everyone else was wrong and the sooner everyone realized that, the happier everyone would be. Gal approached her roses with similar exacting standards. Her single-minded devotion to her roses came at everyone else’s expense. She established a specific routine for their care, feeding and watering and expected it to be followed to the letter. She trained one student how to assist her with the roses, but refused to let anyone else in. As a friend, she kept mostly to herself. Stoic in her refusal to appear weak but that same stoicism kept others at a distance. She only reached out after she had exhausted all other options and needed help. But she would only accept help on her terms, in the manner in which she specified and tolerated no deviations from that. And it was here, in all of these other choices Gal made and how she approached her own life, that I saw the influence of the Judge archetype.

        The Judge is often misunderstood as we equate “judge/judgement” with “criticism” and typically associate a negative connotation to this archetype. Or we think of this archetype within the limited confines of a profession associated with the ideas of the human justice system. However, the Judge’s influence on a person’s life is so much more than that. At its core, the Judge sees the world according to a set of inviolate, but not standardized, laws. Meaning that an individual decides for themselves what their own personal set of laws are. And here, I am not talking about the human legal/justice system, but rather an individual’s personal honor code and value system, which while likely influenced by societal/cultural beliefs, may morph into something entirely personal to the individual. This is not something limited to the Judge per se as we all have a personal value system, however for the Judge, this becomes canon law. And herein lies the inherent challenge of the Judge archetype.

        There are two expressions of an archetypal influence on a person’s life: light and shadow. When expressed under the light, the Judge exhibits a benevolence. This person is open to input from and sympathetic to others and uses their personal value system to seek balance. However, when expressed under shadow, the Judge is close-minded and, yes, judgemental. Because of this, a person influenced by the shadow aspect of the Judge may seem inflexible, rigid and exacting and truly be floored when someone else doesn’t see things the same way they do. The idea that there may be differing value systems is incomprehensible. When unchallenged, this person will feel like everything is moving along smoothly and be completely oblivious to the eggshells that everyone else is walking on around them. Seen from this perspective, Gal was most certainly allowing the shadow aspect of the Judge to be expressed through her.

        Not everyone is influenced by every archetype; we seem to have an affinity for some over others. We also come under the influence of more than one archetype over the course of a lifetime. From a universal perspective, archetypes are impersonal, neutral influences — not good or bad, not right or wrong. We choose how an archetype expresses through us and into our own life. So often, we operate from the shadow side because we get caught up in ego, insecurities and power struggles and this becomes part of our journey as a human being. Continuing with the example of the Judge, often times a person influenced by the Judge needs to learn how to be open to input, allowing room for other viewpoints and people and be open to compromise. But sometimes — heck, let’s face it — most of the time, we need a big ole kick in the backside in order to do it.

        Enter into the story, Riley, Gal’s teenage niece who unexpectedly comes to live with her. Riley represents chaos to Gal’s world order. Riley becomes something that Gal can not simply ignore or write-off as she does with most people. Up to this point in Gal’s life, she had been fairly self-absorbed, only caring for herself and her roses. Riley forced Gal to be sensitive to someone else’s feelings. And this began the slow and difficult awakening within Gal that perhaps her perfectly ordered world needed change. That her value system could actually allow for some flexibility and that the world didn’t revolve completely around her and her roses. And through this awakening, Gal allowed herself to hear feedback and input she had previously dismissed. She began to realize that perhaps she had been a selfish friend, an unaccommodating teacher, a harsh aunt, a judgmental sister, a codependent daughter.

        And while these are all change-worthy behaviors and it would be easy to dislike Gal, I found myself having great compassion for her experience. The emotional impact of dealing with chronic illness is itself exhausting. So much energy gets invested in just putting one foot in front of the other. Not wanting to burden others even if at the same time you want someone to take care of everything for you. Keeping it inside so you don’t talk about it all the time because really, you just want to get on with the business of living, whatever that may be. Connecting with friends takes energy and sometimes there just isn’t a source to tap. After awhile, friends get tired of hearing about it and you get tired of talking about it. But you can only keep up the social mask for so long…so you let yourself drift apart from the very support system you crave. And that’s not even taking into account what the illness itself is doing to your body.

        Having said all that, I did, in the end, dislike Gal. Her response to the kidney transplant donation drive and the results of the kidney compatibility test rubbed me the wrong way and as much compassion as I felt for her experience, this was the proverbial last straw. I had no more patience for her. She did not express gratitude or humility, but rather seemed to take it as an entitlement. Even though the story itself was well-crafted and well-written from the mechanical perspective, the narrative lacked emotional depth and I just didn’t enjoy it all that much. I found the slow, meandering pace a bit tedious and Gal’s stubborn personality made it difficult to connect with her. I felt that Gal didn’t go through much of a transition until the very end and what little progression she did accommodate was done begrudgingly for most of the story. Every concession she made was a calculated move rather than a selfless act. Maybe that’s more honest, but it didn’t endear me to her. The one bright spot to the story was Riley and for the most part, I liked how Gal interacted with her. The ending attempted to wrap the story up in a shiny bow which didn’t seem consistent with the rest of the narrative. However given the bleak tone that permeated the narrative, I’m glad it did end on a slight upbeat.

        I don’t have to like the characters I read about, but I do need to emotionally connect with something in the story. And while I did connect to the story on a philosophical level and I could relate to Gal’s experience of dealing with chronic illness, in the end, this story just didn’t elicit much of an emotional response from me.

        I give The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns a mixed rating of a B for the mechanical aspect and the deft manner in which the story was presented, and a C for my personal response to it.

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