The New York Times
The Rose Variationsby Marisha Chamberlain
“The Rose Variations is an elegant symphony of a novel, shaped by a lovely complexity, informed by humor and grace. Congratulations to Marisha Chamberlain for her fine debut.”—Roxana Robinson, author of Cost
“In this richly absorbing novel/i>/i>/i>
Advance Praise for The Rose Variations:
“The Rose Variations is an elegant symphony of a novel, shaped by a lovely complexity, informed by humor and grace. Congratulations to Marisha Chamberlain for her fine debut.”—Roxana Robinson, author of Cost
“In this richly absorbing novel Chamberlain creates a heroine so vivid, so complex, so passionate that she walks right off the page and into the reader's mind and heart. I loved following Rose through her various vicissitudes, romantic and musical, and through her many relationships with friends, colleagues, students and lovers. The Rose Variations is one of those rare novels that captures the complexity of a life lived over time, and does so in beautiful, eloquent prose. A brilliant debut.”—Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
“Rose MacGregor is my kind of heroine—funny and serious, dreamy but brutally practical when it’s called for; someone blissfully inconsistent—like the rest of us. What more can one ask than that a novel presents us with a unique personality such as Rose’s?”—Judith Guest, author of Ordinary People
“Who’d have thought it possible? There’s news about love and work in Marisha Chamberlain’s The Rose Variations! It’d be hard to find a more contemporary view of the sexual dilemma, but I couldn’t help thinking how much Shakespeare, Mozart, and Jane Austen would have savored this novel.”—David Huddle, author of The Story of a Million Years and La Tour Dreams of the Wolf Girl
In 1975, twenty-five-year-old Rose MacGregor moves to St. Paul, Minnesota, with nothing but a few books, her cello, and a temporary professorship at a Midwestern college. The only woman in the music department, the other professors refer to her derisively as “the Girl Composer,” but she believes that a brilliant career writing music lies ahead.
Passionately focused on her art, she also longs to find love, but her fierce independence always seems to get in the way of romantic relationships. Struggling with loneliness and ambition, she gets tangled up with a gay colleague, a self-made stonemason, a lesbian cellist, and the troubles of her wayward younger sister, before finally finding happiness.
Marisha Chamberlain is a playwright, poet, fiction writer, essayist, and screenwriter. Her book of poems, Powers, won a Minnesota Voices Award. She lives in Hastings, Minnesota. This is her first novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
The New York Times
In her first novel, poet and playwright Chamberlain tells the vibrant story of Rose McGregor, a talented composer navigating academia in the early days of feminism. A temporary appointment as the token "Girl Composer" at a Minnesota college puts 25-year-old Rose on her own for the first time; the older of two New Hampshire sisters, Rose has always been the plain, responsible one, caretaker to sister Natalie, but finds her professional and personal lives blooming in the cold weather of St. Paul. She falls in love with Guy, a stonemason who wants to whisk her off to his farm, but the affair falls apart. From there, Rose joins eccentric cellist Lila Goldensohn, who has turned her country home into an all-female retreat. Living off the land without the distraction of love, Rose returns to composing until Natalie unexpectedly arrives, pregnant and in distress, to overtake Rose's life again. Following Rose's music career to the city, the West Coast and back again, Chamberlain makes a charming, quirky fugue of Rose's pursuit of love, independence and success. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
It is 1975, and composer Rose MacGregor has accepted a music professorship at a St. Paul, MN, college. Soon enmeshed in campus life and politics, she embarks on a frenetic series of friendships, romances, and musical endeavors-all amid a quest for tenure. A stint at an organic farm leads her to Lila, a hirsute cellist, while Natalie, Rose's flaky younger sister, helps herself to Rose's boyfriend, Guy. An ensuing custody battle between Natalie and Guy over their daughter, Marguerite, proves to be an ongoing heartache for Rose as her allegiances are tested. This first novel from versatile writer Chamberlain (she's also a poet, playwright, essayist, and librettist) is alternatively witty, bitingly honest, and as finely crafted as Rose's symphonies must be. A strong debut with a compelling heroine; recommended for larger fiction collections.
Jenn B. Stidham
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The Rose Variations
By Marisha Chamberlain
Soho Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Rose MacGregor laughed and shouldn't have. Frances, it seemed, was going to cry. Frances Dupre, leaning against the kitchen counter of Rose's sublet in a twisting old neighborhood in St. Paul on a muggy August night, held a full wine glass that she didn't seem to be drinking from, but rather posing with as the tears trickled down her face. She wept because Rose was lucky in love, while she, Frances, was not. This was ridiculous, something Frances had invented out of thin air.
"Look at you," said Frances. "How your clothes drape on you. Your hair. You're one of the lucky ones," she declared through the majesty of her tears.
"Oh, please," said Rose and glanced down at herself, at her lean, unremarkable body in the well-worn T-shirt and jeans, at the unraveling sleeves of the dark green sweater that had gotten her through grad school. Her bones were big, her breasts too small, and her clothes, she knew, hung plainly. People remarked that her eyes were very blue, MacGregor blue, her father's eyes. And she had a good head of hair spilling down her back; but nearly everyone wore their hair long then. Frances did. In her pressed linens, Frances was far better dressed than Rose, and her dark hair was longer than Rose's and thicker, held back from her face by a pair of genuine tortoiseshell combs.
"You just watch. Someone's going to grab you up in a minute," said Frances, pulling the combs out and thrusting them back in again.
Rose supposed the college had grabbed her up; and though this was not exactly love, it was luck of a generic sort. The year was 1975; Time magazine's Man of the Year was the American Woman, though no one woman in particular; colleges were hiring women, at least temporarily. Rose was referred to as the Girl Composer behind her back. Frances had told her. In the all-male music department, Frances was the secretary and heard all the gossip. "Girl Composer" was not a term of esteem, Rose knew. In nine months' time, when her teaching appointment ended, she might be waiting tables. She might very well end up a secretary herself, she told Frances.
"No, you won't," said Frances. "You won't have to. You'll meet someone."
"If you say so." Rose had what she considered a pathetic history with boyfriends and had told Frances all about it. Her last affair had been a solemn three-week fling with another music student, a misguided show of how much they thought they'd miss each other after graduation. They hadn't even swapped postcards since then. But none of that seemed to matter to Frances, who gazed into the future as her wine glass wobbled.
"You'll get some new guy within the month," she said.
"Now, there's a prediction," said Rose, who had never felt more alone in her life.
She was twenty-five. She'd arrived in St. Paul only the week before with nothing but a few T-shirts, a couple pairs of jeans, sneakers, a box of books, her bicycle, and her cello. She knew no one there but the people she'd met in the music department, and was on a first-name basis with no one but Frances.
She took the sloshing wineglass, set it down, and slipped her arm around Frances. Did they know each other well enough for this sort of scene? Perhaps they did.
Frances was close to homely: thin as a scarecrow, with piercing eyes. Nonetheless, her attention to details of hair and clothes made her seem born to fascinate. Her focus was on love, on love alone, on some tragic love that she seemed to be working up to revealing. Rose didn't mind hearing about tragic love. Her previous girlfriends, however, had been tomboys-ambitious types who liked dancing, teasing, getting men into arguments and into bed, getting in and out of affairs without any obvious falling to pieces. Rose's mother and her sister, too, were both so peculiarly themselves that their femaleness seemed almost incidental. As for Rose, she was composer first, woman second. It was how she'd survived. So she didn't quite get why Frances saw her as girlfriend material, nor could she imagine how she could reciprocate all the attention, for Frances had been uncannily involved in everything that concerned Rose since she'd first set foot in Minnesota the previous spring.
Just before her grad school commencement back east in Philadelphia, Rose had been invited to the college in St. Paul to interview. She recognized the opportunity, a job in music and a title, but had had to refer to a map to sort Minnesota from Wisconsin and Iowa and all the other blocky states in the middle and had quailed at the warnings that blizzards out there started in October and didn't end till May.
On a day in May, wearing a borrowed wool dress and pumps, the pumps too small, the dress too hot, she'd stepped off the plane in Minnesota, not into snow but into boiling green springtime. From her cab window an old army fort loomed. Then the Mississippi, a wide wetness, turned below a bridge and the freeway emptied into streets that led uphill to the college. It could have been a college anywhere-lush lawns, red brick and ivy, bell tower, library columns with motto above and wide steps below, and a shifting crowd of jabbering young people, wrapped up in themselves as though theirs was the only possible life. Rose appeared to fit in: just another girl in a sacklike garment-the dress she wore which she'd thought flowed nicely was, in fact, too large at the waist. Somebody belched and she smiled, pretending to be one of them. The schedule was firm-interview, guest lecture, reception-but just then, just before she announced herself, the need to utter her name struck her as painful. For no reason she could think of, it seemed a burden to be someone in particular. And then she saw Frances.
At the entrance to the music department, at the center of a glass cubicle-a fishbowl, Frances would say; a glass case for an ornament, Rose would come to think-stood Frances's desk and on it a name plate which read not her name, but The Beauty.
"Do you go by Beauty," Rose asked, "or The for short?"
Their eyes met and Frances chuckled. Then she went still. "Rose MacGregor? Good heavens! Was there no one to meet you at the airport?" Her voice was low and dry like two pieces of cardboard rubbed together. Her hand in Rose's was slim, the fingers exaggeratedly long. Frances was certainly someone in particular.
"The Chairman went to meet you." Frances reached for her phone.
Rose picked up the nameplate. "I've got to get one of these."
"You? You don't need one," Frances had replied.
And Rose had felt her spirits lift. Frances's appraisal, however mistaken, made her feel well-favored. Her shoes eased themselves around her feet and if her dress ballooned as she was conveyed from place to place, at least the hot wool didn't stick to her skin. She felt keen, percussive, a jolt of lightning in a cloud, very possibly a beauty. She found her voice, became loquacious, chatted her way through the interview, waxed eloquent for her lecture, and, during the reception, bantered, prompting small explosions of laughter even from the Department Chair. Chairman and Professor Harold Atkinson, in tweed vest with braided leather buttons, flanked by his small, pale, freckled wife, Doris, occupied the same corner of the faculty lounge the whole of the reception, where people approached him and murmured as if at a shrine. The Chairman was the one due for sabbatical, whose teaching duties Rose would assume. A sabbatical for reasons of health and of family, said Frances, who handled protocol as though with silver tongs. She purred and jingled and ferried Rose from person to person, buoying things up, creating the occasion. And so it was partly Frances's doing that Rose got the job and the borrowed office and the sublet of the Atkinsons' apartment, where Frances now prophesied Rose's future luck.
"Alan likes you."
"Come on, Alan. The good-looking one."
Of course Rose knew Alan, the other junior faculty member in the music department. Why pretend she didn't? She'd seen him up close just an hour before.
Earlier that evening, she'd taken her bicycle for a fast ride through the winding streets around the college. The neighborhood amused her. Informally called Tangletown, the hilly old district had never been leveled or squared. Sidewalks and streets went where footpaths and wagon tracks must have first gone and houses never stood quite side by side. The streets coiled and wandered and intersected, creating islands and extra corners, forcing drivers to stop to ask for directions and Rose to carry a map in her pocket. Her borrowed duplex stood on one corner and, on another several blocks away, stood Frances and her mother's narrow colonial with its picket gate and pepperberry wreath. The streets had a way of turning back on themselves, and, more than once in her wanderings, Rose arrived unexpectedly at Frances's gate or back at her own doorstep before she'd intended.
That evening, however, she'd found her way out of Tangletown to the wide avenue that ran past houses tall and grand to the great, gray mound of the Cathedral and then steeply downward to the riverbed, the wide Mississippi river basin where downtown St. Paul stood in its venerable grime. Though the sun had barely set, the city appeared so deserted it might have been midnight. An enormous black cupcake of a building, the Civic Center, entirely unpopulated, stood near to a blond temple faced in Greek columns, opposite a steep red brick, eight stories high and lined by a fire escape, the Catholic Youth Organization, no youths in evidence. Letting out her brakes, she blasted through a park, past a still fountain beside a stone castle with a clock tower, and then hurled herself through a red light.
In the gathering dark, in her dark green sweater, she couldn't be seen. Turning back uphill, she switched on her bike lamp. Its irritable stutter made more noise than light. She took to the sidewalk, head down, huffing, and so smashed into the only other living being on the hill, Alan Gilpin. Calling out hoarsely, he jammed her wheel to a stop with his foot and then grabbed her shoulders so she wouldn't fall.
"Are you okay?" he asked breathlessly.
Of course she was. Was he?
"Yup," he said and went on.
If chagrined, she was also thrilled. His rangy build was of the type that had always caught her eye, and he smelled frankly of sweat. But he was also gay. Rose thought of the commanding post the secretary's desk occupied in the front office of the music department and of poor Alan, conducting his business there while The Beauty tried to engage him over the xerox machine.
"Alan's gay, Frances."
"How can you say that? He brings women to concerts and things at the college."
"Well," said Rose. She thought he was. Some of the best ones were; Rose, in the course of her misadventures, had had to develop radar for that.
But it wasn't Alan who Frances yearned for. Gazing at the wall above the kitchen stove, where the absent Chairman Atkinson could be studied in triptych-first filling a folding cup from a spring, then handing it to his wife, and then, in priestly fashion, watching her drink-Frances choked out her confession in two words, the most important of her life: Harold Atkinson. The affair was long over-years over-but Frances would never be over him.
It occurred to Rose with a chill that Frances wasn't actually visiting her: she was visiting the home of her lost love. Frances declared she couldn't talk about it, then abruptly marched into the bedroom-the bedroom of her married lover, now Rose's bedroom-and, standing at the foot of the bed, declared her love for Harold Atkinson, and his for her-oh yes. They were sinners, she knew, and Rose might despise them for it, but Harold had been too lonely. So what if Doris couldn't have children? Doris had Harold! How could Doris cry herself sick every day when she had Harold?
What Rose could recall of Harold Atkinson was a pair of glasses with thick, dark frames and the boxy vest whose leather buttons she could not imagine wanting to unfasten. But there was a youthful version of Harold, many versions in the photos, large and small, that filled the mantel and lined the walls, photos of the Chairman and his wife in hiking clothes against the backdrop of various mountain ranges labeled Urals, Alps, Andes, his hair not yet gray, her freckled face lively, their hands joined, a radiant pair.
As the apartment would be occupied by Rose for nine months, why hadn't they put the photos away? Their closet was all empty hangers. The massive chest of drawers would remain mostly empty-Rose didn't begin to have the clothes to fill it. Getting into bed that first night, she'd rolled into a hollow, stretched her arm and encountered another, twin valleys in the double bed. She got up, tore off the sheets, and rotated the mattress, but it made no difference. The Atkinsons were long-married; the mattress had been much rotated.
But the male shape who filled the hollow was the Harold Atkinson upon whom Frances had fixed her heart, and, speaking of him, Frances gazed at the bed so yearningly that Rose feared she might lie down, and so led her back to the kitchen where the photos were, then to the living room, where the photos were, also, and finally out the back door, to sit on the bench on the back stair landing, where the view was of the treetops, and from which she could more simply ease Frances toward home.
"I've never loved anyone but him," moaned Frances, "and never will. Nobody knows. You won't tell, will you?" she begged.
"Why would I?" asked Rose.
Rose herself had been a late bloomer, a gangly girl who, at high school parties, had pounded on any piano in sight while her friends whisked in and out of dim closets and basements for groping and kissing. In the little New Hampshire town where she grew up, she'd been vice-president of student council and manager of glee club and had carried on vehemently platonic friendships with one boy or another. Love was way too much for her then. The very thought had made her silly and unable to think, had brought her, she'd felt, to the verge of disgrace not only before other people, but before herself, for she was a serious girl, and there was no dignity more monumental than that of a serious girl. She dwelt in a grand, if vague, future. While she lived under her parents' roof, she preserved her ignorance with a gravity past which no boy was bold enough to go.
So she didn't date. Her younger sister, Natalie, did, or ran wild, depending on who was talking. Their parents had been too engrossed to notice: her mother in oil painting; her father in religion. But if people said Natalie ran wild-and they did: there were rumors of an older man, a married man-Rose defended her hotly. Wasn't Natalie home every night, washing dishes while Rose dried? Not that anyone listened to Rose, who didn't even know what "wild" might be. Even Natalie mocked her. Rose, she said, would end up a nun.
Rose applied to a college far away where no one knew what to expect of her, and, making up for lost time, rid herself of her ignorance. By Thanksgiving she'd had several one-nighters-well, two-two young men whose names she could mention in coy phone conversations with Natalie, who was, after all, still in high school.
However, the thrill of proving herself at least capable of the motions of love left her shaken. If the earth moved, it moved too fast. Everyone seemed in a hurry those days, despite the languid clothes, the droopy mustaches, the flowing hair. She, herself, was in a hurry, terrified of missing something-the latest street theater, street dance, sit-in, and the pairing off in the dark.
But then darkness moved to morning and one woke up beside whomever and had to find something to say and a way to get out of there, to move swiftly, to not care. She hadn't been able to manage it. She cared about everything, the young man in bed beside her, whoever he was, no more than a boy, as she was no more than a girl; mean boys she couldn't like; sweet boys who made her nervous; other girls who might be her true friends or might not; the whole wide world. She'd wanted the world, and there she was, snarled up in it, with nowhere to rest except in music. She poured herself into music.
Her classmates began pairing off into established couples and she found herself wanting, for no good reason, to be phoned again by some boy, it didn't matter whom. She couldn't stand the randomness of it. At the start of sophomore year she got herself out of the dorm to a sunny rented room. Encouraging sly remarks about her off-campus freedom, she hid out there and devoted herself entirely to her studies and her music, while nursing a frail hope that she might one day meet someone she'd really want to know who would really want to know her.
Excerpted from The Rose Variations by Marisha Chamberlain Copyright © 2009 by Marisha Chamberlain. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Marisha Chamberlain is a playwright, screenwriter, fiction writer, and poet. Her book of poems, Powers, won a Minnesota Voices Award. She lives in Hastings, Minnesota. This is her first novel.
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In 1975, following her graduation at a Philadelphia school in which she was the only female in her class, twenty-five-year-old Rose MacGregor accept a temporary position as the token ¿Girl Composer at a St. Paul, Minnesota college. She arrives with almost nothing beyond a few T-shirts and her cello. Her only feminist ally in the music department is the secretary Frances Dupree.
She dreams of becoming a famous composer and finding true love; having spent her pre-graduate days growing up in New Hampshire and taking care of her younger sister Natalie. Rose blossoms in St. Paul as she falls in love although the romance ends sadly. She joins cellist Lila Goldensohn¿s all-female musical group and enjoys her time on her mentor¿s farm composing. That ends abruptly when a despondent pregnant Natalie arrives. After doing what comes naturally which is taking care of Natalie, Rose¿s music thrives while she continues her quest for love.
This is an enjoyable historical character study that takes the audience back to the early days of the feminist movement; affirming we have come a long way baby; if you have doubts look at sports with women dunking. The story line is owned by the appealing Rose who seeks musical accomplishments in her professional life and an interesting combination of self sufficiency with a love of a lifetime. Her eccentricity that flourishes with growing confidence due to her musical achievements make for an engaging tale in which the late 1970s have become historical.
I loved this book. I can't wait for more from Marisha Chamberlain!