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

The Care and Handling of Roses with ThornsThe Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns
Margaret Dilloway
Berkley Books/Penguin
ISBN: 978-0-399-15775-2

Galilee Garner breeds roses. She teaches high school biology at St. Mark’s, a small private Catholic high school. And she spends every other night at a dialysis center while she awaits a third kidney transplant. Gal leads a private life. She’s a thirty-six year old loner who prefers to spend time in her greenhouse with her roses than socialize with friends. She wouldn’t admit it, but she struggles with poor self-esteem as a result of having kidney disease since childhood. She won’t join a rose club because she fears someone might tell her she’s not good enough. Gal does have one friend, Dara, the art teacher at St. Mark’s. Dara is dependable and Gal relies on her.

One day, Gal is called to the principal’s office. She discovers a motley-looking girl sitting there expectantly. Gal doesn’t recognize her, but the girl is Gal’s niece. And she needs to live with Gal. Gal hasn’t seen Riley in years. She and her sister Becky have been estranged throughout their adult lives. Becky has struggled with addictions, bad relationships, a general lack of responsibility, and now she’s leaving the country for an indeterminate amount of time for her job, dropping Riley in Gal’s lap. Neither Gal nor Riley knows what to think about this arrangement. Gal is uncertain of her ability to be a guardian. Riley feels abandoned and unloved.

The two settle into a routine and grow fond of each other. Gal learns to deal with the typical teenage angst and Riley welcomes the fact that someone cares enough about her to discipline and set limits. Months later, Becky comes home and wants Riley back. Gal and Becky finally have the painful conversation they should have had fifteen years ago, and Riley must make a decision.

The story holds many interesting subplots and character interactions. A new teacher, George Morton, comes to St. Marks and begins dating Dara. But Gal discovers he harbors a secret. Gal dislikes her doctor and fights for a spot on the transplant list. She almost dies from an allergic reaction to CT scan dye. Gal attends competitive rose shows and hopes one of her hybrid hulthemias will win a prize. Riley wants to be on the Science Team, but Gal doesn’t think she’s smart enough. The principal threatens to demote Gal to part-time because the parents complain she’s too tough on the students, and because of her health issues.

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns is an enjoyable read, despite the fact that Gal is not a likable main character. She’s snarky and stubborn, sarcastic and selfish, cynical and controlling. And as Dara painfully points out to her, Gal is not a good friend. And yet her friends support her. Gal’s parents love her unconditionally and drop everything to rescue her when necessary. Riley grows to love and feel protective of her aunt. The reader, while not really liking Gal, cheers her on when she makes breakthrough discovery about herself and truly tries to be a better person. It’s a story about relationships between family, friends, and acquaintances, with just a hint of romance.

The first five pages focus on roses and how to breed them. It reads a bit like a textbook, and I found myself wanting to get into the story and meet the main character more quickly. In the author’s defense, maybe she felt this opening was necessary to put us in Gal’s frame of mind.

This is Dilloway’s second novel and is a winner on the ALA 2013 Reading List. Once past that initial lesson on rose gardening, the book is a pleasant read. There are book discussion questions in the back, making it a perfect choice for book clubs. Recommended for fans of women’s literary fiction and rose enthusiasts.

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