There are two things you should know about Five Roses and its author:
- The title Five Roses is taken from the FARINE FIVE ROSES sign, lighted red letters visible on the southern skyline of Montreal since 1948. In 2006, the new owners of the flour mill turned off the lights, but Montrealers successfully reversed the decision by designating the sign as an iconic landmark.
- Author Alice Zorn lost her own sister to suicide and writes from a place of painfully true experience.
I mention these because, to me, they are the roots of the novel’s biggest strengths: a sense of place and a sense of loss. Five Roses tells the story of three women who live in Montreal in 2005, and each narrates her own part of the story. One of them, Fara, buys a house with her husband, and learning that the previous owner’s son committed suicide brings up painful memories of her own sister’s death. In one of the most powerful scenes of the novel, Fara muses that “all death is final, but suicide isn’t just dying. It’s choosing death.” She also points out that
…losing a sibling is very specific kind of loss. It’s not like a parent who was in charge and took care of you. Your sibiling is the other kid who was there while you were growing up. Even if you didn’t have a good relationship, your sibling is part of you in a way no one else is — and probably even more so if your parents weren’t around or not really there for you.” (p. 168)
Being very close to my own sister, the above scene struck a chord in me. Later on, Fara recounts how, before her sister committed suicide, she asked around for someone to take her of her cat for a few days while she went away. Fara declined because she was allergic to cats, but I can just imagine the guilt she must be feeling, however irrational. Knowing about the author’s own experience, I can only wonder how difficult and/or cathartic it must have been to write about Fara’s experiences, and I enjoyed the somewhat subdued, thoughtful approach to the subject.
The second protagonist, Maddy, lost her daughter to a kidnapper in 1978, and finds somewhat of a daughter figure in a co-worker at a bakery, Yushi. Maddy is the narrator, but for me, it’s Yushi who stole the stage in these sections. I loved reading about her cooking, and I was moved by the story of her past as a pastry chef. Maddy asks why Yushi is bagging bread when she could be a pastry chef, and Yushi’s answer is beautifully evasive, hinting at a much deeper story: “If you can’t do what you want to do, it’s better to do nothing at all.”
The third narrator is Rose, Yushi’s roommate who grew up in a cabin in the woods and wants to learn more about her past. Her story involves much more than simply finding out the truth behind her birth, but to be honest, her character didn’t really interest me as much as the others.
The FIVE ROSES sign was brought up several times in the story, first in the prologue as a place marker and port in the storm to the woman who would raise Rose, and later, the sign prompts Rose to share a story she learned from her mother, about a girl alone in the woods whose only friends were five roses who named her Rose. Rose wasn’t sure why the story felt so significant, but it’s the only story her mother ever told. The significance of this sign makes Montreal almost as much as character as the three women, and the story somehow renders it a maternal feel, fitting into the novel’s themes of family and loss.
The story meanders, and the payoff feels mundane, but in a way that feels deliberate. It’s as if Zorn drops us into these characters’ lives then all-so-delicately lifts us out again. Overall, it didn’t quite work for me — I sympathized with the characters but never really connected with them, and while I enjoyed some of the scenes, I never really cared enough about the story to lose myself in it. Still, Zorn’s descriptions are evocative, and her characters feel broken in ways that are tangible and real. Montreal as written by Zorn appears on the cusp of a shift of some kind, and while I can’t quite articulate why, it feels like the characters are at a similar point in their lives. There seems more to this story than I got out of it, and while I wasn’t quite hooked, I can see its appeal to other readers.
My blog is the first stop on a weeklong blog tour for the Five Roses launch in Canada. For other perspectives on this book, check out the schedule below:
- July 25: Literary Treats
- July 26: Just a Lil Lost
- July 27: Padfoots Library
- July 28: Literary Hoarders
- July 29: Lost in a Great Book
Thank you to Dundurn Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.