Book review: The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth
Published 2019 by Vintage Books an imprint of Penguin Random House Australia
“Moving between Imperial China and France during the ‘Terror’ of the French Revolution and inspired by the true story of the quest for a blood-red rose.”
Kate Forsyth is an exceptional storyteller. She imbues every word she writes with feeling and imagination. Her latest novel, The Blue Rose, is no exception.
Forsyth delivers such well-balanced insight into worlds past that readers willingly lose themselves among people living out the story she weaves. Her knitting together of truth and fiction, dressing of fact with the finery of fantasy, and showing all the flaws and wisdom of characters as they navigate the culture and society in which they belong is a reflection of the skill, talent, and dedication she brings to every novel.
A blue rose is the subject of a Chinese fable about obtaining the impossible and forms the base theme of the story set against the upheaval of France in the days prior to and during the French Revolution and the slow opening of China to Western cultures. In her novel of the same name, Forsyth offers us a much more interesting way of learning history than any classroom.
Forsyth’s, The Blue Rose, starts at the Chateau de Belisima-sur-le-lac in Brittany, with an immediate visual entree into the personality of Viviane, daughter of the Marquis de Ravoisier. We quickly realise that one person’s privileged castle home is another’s prison. Wild, wilful, and full of compassion for those around her, Viviane is a caged bird destined to either have her wings clipped or fly free.
David is a Welsh garden designer with a strong creative streak supported by duty and obligation for the family he is supporting back in Wales, and a passionate heart. He is an ambitious and adventurous gardener, willing to work hard for his goals, and to make a name for himself so that he can move up in the design world. He travels to Brittany to design a new garden for the Marquis de Ravoisier.
Viviane and David are as separate from each other as two people can be, their backgrounds and culture, the societies they are part of, the language they speak and their future expectations so different that their meeting and shared love seems wrought with difficulties from the start. Viviane is from an aristocratic family led by a man fully committed to a dissolute selfish life and who sees his daughter as a tool to regain lost wealth and strengthen his foothold at the Royal Court. David is an “English” gardener, another tool to be used to lift the Marquis’s standing in society.
Viviane is nevertheless a woman who dreams of escape and adventure. Luckily for her, the Marquis is more often away in Paris than at home, and for the most part, if she can escape her watchers, Viviane wanders around the estate with her three-legged dog, Luna. Like her deceased mother, Viviane, loves the land and the people and does not look down on them as her father is wont to do. She may be an aristocrat, but her heart lies with a more egalitarian future where social position is not a weapon used to abuse those with less.
David too sees the future as one where people live equally and where all have the opportunity to move out of poverty. His working-class background and his Vicar grandfather have greatly influenced him. He sees the aristocratic class as a way of getting ahead in a world that relies on their indulgences and money yet bridles at their selfish displays of wealth.
When David and Viviane spend time together, ostensibly to assist with any language barriers, they recognise in each other a mutual love of beauty and nature.
Yet David underestimates the hold the Marquis has over his daughter and they are torn apart. Viviane is married off to a rich man much older than her and David is chased away with the threat of arrest and death if caught.
And so the grand story that is The Blue Rose begins. Viviane is thrust into the upheaval that is Paris in the late 1700s – the French Revolution days away and she ensconced in a society that is about to be ripped to shreds.
Forsyth’s sharing of this momentous time is done so with a deft touch through the eyes and heart of Viviane. Unhappy with her new husband and forced to play a role as far from her carefree youth as can be, she nevertheless traverses the uncertainty of life in the Royal Court and shows us a thought-provoking side to the King and Queen of France. Particularly so, Antoinette and her young children, and the love that binds them together. The Revolution takes over and Viviane bears witness to the pain inflicted upon the ill-fated family as she goes into hiding as a scullery maid knowing that at any moment her true identity could be discovered and her fate would be the same as all other aristocrats: prison and death by guillotine.
David, on the run from the Marquis, returns to England and joins an expedition to China in search of rare seeds and plants, and the fabled Ruby Red Rose.
Here again, Forsyth gives her readers insight into the world of insular China, a country that has everything it needs within its own borders and looks down upon Western countries as inferior nation states. The juxtaposition of the two viewpoints is excellently portrayed in the attitudes of David’s fellow travellers especially the ambassador looking to formalise ties between the two countries on behalf of the King of England.
The ease with which Forsyth weaves a story is evident throughout The Blue Rose as Viviane and David come together and then part ways each moving in different directions yet unable to forget their love, unable to forget the promises said and unsaid.
There’s something comforting about picking up a Kate Forsyth novel and snuggling down in a comfy corner to read it. From opening the cover to closing, you know you’ll be whisked away to another world, taken on a journey of discovery, a world where impossible blue roses are certain, and love finds its way in the end.
For lovers of historical and contemporary fiction, romance, and roses....