Martha Hall Kelly’s “Lost Roses” weaves together the fates of three women in an entertaining historical novel set on the brink of World War I. These women – Eliza Ferriday, Sofya Streshnayva and Varinka – may be of different nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds. , but the coming war is becoming more democratic: everyone must learn to survive in their own way in the face of the complete upheaval of their lives.
The strength of “Lost Roses” lies in its compelling protagonists. As each woman tells her own story, her voice and character become more distinct and moving. The portrayals of these women are incredibly warm and likeable, which is quite the feat considering how many characters there are in this world.
Eliza Ferriday is an American socialite and humanitarian living in New York City. Of well-to-do New England stock, Eliza spent her time traveling the world with her family until the onset of war dramatically changed her middle-class lifestyle. When her best friend Sofya is trapped in Russia due to war and the nascent Bolshevik Revolution, Eliza does all she can to help her friend by supporting the White Russian émigrés who are flooding into America, while trying to find Sofya. . Eliza’s conflicts initially seem rather insignificant, especially in comparison to the other women, but the unexpected death of her husband Henry and rising tensions between her and her teenage daughter Caroline add much more depth to her struggles and demonstrate just how no she is strong. it’s true. Meanwhile, Sofya, a prisoner in her own home outside St. Petersburg, is separated from her son Maxwell and must do everything she can to ensure her own survival in order to find him. She faces the greatest difficulty and it is her unwavering attitude that continually attracts admiration. Her enduring friendship with Eliza also sets her apart. Prone to a lack of sympathy, his love for Eliza reminds the reader just how tender she can be.
Other characters inspire just as much sympathy. Varinka is a young peasant woman who lives near the Streshnayva estate. After the devastating death of her blacksmith father, Varinka must fend for herself and her sick mother with the help of her father’s apprentice, Taras. Yet a stint in prison resulting from rebellious behavior turned Taras into a cruel man who simultaneously controls, protects, and manipulates Varinka. Her job as a nanny for Sofya’s son, Max, initially presents itself as a great opportunity and escape for Varinka, but with the eruption of the Revolution, she finally finds herself on an equal footing with her employers. Although she struggles between hatred and loyalty to the Streshnayva, Varinka decides to take Sofya’s son, adopting Max as her own. Compared to other women, Varinka has to grow a lot more – but it’s this arc that makes her even more interesting than other characters.
Some of the characters, like Eliza and Caroline, are based on the lives of real historical figures, which makes their stories all the more vivid. Even those that are figments of Kelly’s own imagination, Sofya and Varinka, are based on women’s journal accounts from that period, formulating equally realistic characters. Kelly’s substantial research is central to her successful storytelling. His panoramic images of the different cities also use this research, providing incredibly detailed scenes: “I urged Jarushka [my horse] along, past the captured German cannon proudly displayed in the Place de la Concorde and the Champs-Elysées and driven along the grand boulevards where the once majestic chestnut trees, now thinned out, had been cut down for firewood.
While Kelly manages to capture scenes beautifully, rooting her writing in detailed description and facts, some set elements are missing. Although Kelly skillfully inhabits the minds of each of these women, she seems to do so too effectively. It may be Kelly’s intention that the reader experience Sofia’s naïveté in her narration, but Sofia’s committed belief in her family’s innate goodness and belief that they are a better kind more aristocratic than the others is breathtakingly naive – to the point where his illusion is distracting. The novel doesn’t seek to be overly political, instead focusing on presenting a range of experiences, but allowing the story to be filtered through Sofya means the novel doesn’t do enough justice to the causes of the Revolution.
The plot also relies too much on chance encounters or goes too far in its symbolism. This includes the roses from which the novel takes its name. At the center of the story is a special breed of roses from the Ferridays’ home in Southampton, which Sofya plants in Russia. Sofya saves them from her garden by running away from the revolutionaries. Sofya, who is fleeing armed men, half-starved and malnourished, would she really spend her time and energy saving flowers for a garden? Although they are important symbols of the survival of these women, roses are simply unrealistic.
These types of issues can detract from incredibly well-researched and fairly thoughtful work. Even though some dialogue can be a bit awkward, the writing still manages to create a deep relationship between the characters. This is evident in Varinka and Sofya’s most complex relationship, which Kelly imbues with just the right amount of tension and apprehension. There are some great elements to “Lost Roses,” but more often than not they’re caught in the crossfire of either extreme symbolism or downright impossible coincidence.
—Editor Aline G. Damas can be reached at [email protected]