The Rose Grower


Writing with poignancy and mesmerizing detail, Michelle de Kretser has penned a haunting tale set against the madness of the French Revolution — a wistful, elegantly rendered novel of unrequited love and personal triumph in a world gone tragically awry.

The 1789 storming of the Bastille has brought France to the brink of revolution. Yet in the serene heart of the French province of Gascony, little has changed in a hundred years — and the events...

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Writing with poignancy and mesmerizing detail, Michelle de Kretser has penned a haunting tale set against the madness of the French Revolution — a wistful, elegantly rendered novel of unrequited love and personal triumph in a world gone tragically awry.

The 1789 storming of the Bastille has brought France to the brink of revolution. Yet in the serene heart of the French province of Gascony, little has changed in a hundred years — and the events in Paris seem but a distant thunder.

Indeed, the dramatic crash landing of American artist and amateur balloonist Stephen Fletcher sparks far more excitement. Stephen lands in the pastoral world of a magistrate and his three daughters — ethereal Claire, pert and precocious Mathilde, and plain, sensible Sophie, who lovingly tends her rose garden as she simmers with unfulfilled longings.

As the revolution brings murder, terror, and fear into the remote Gascon countryside, Stephen finds himself enchanted by the angelic Claire. Yet he is also strangely drawn to Sophie, whose courage and compassion sustain them all, from her family to the quixotic, tormented physician who silently adores her. And even as Sophie keeps a tender secret of her own, she works toward realizing yet another dream: the miracle of an original repeat-flowering crimson rose — a hopeful symbol of an unblighted future.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"If Jane Austen had been French, she might well have invented the family Saint-Pierre.... Stylish and uniquely crafted."
The Orlando Sentinel

"Powerful ... lovely, meticulously researched ... evokes the beginnings of the Terror in crisp, elegant, compassionate prose."
The New York Times Book Review

"Fascinating ... Sophie's calmness and kindness, her passion for roses, her botanical studies and attempts to create a crimson flower ... are the soul and spine of the book.... De Kretser has exhaustively researched the life of the period, but she wears her knowledge lightly."
The Washington Post Book World

Library Journal
On July 14, 1789, American artist Stephen Fletcher literally falls from the sky into the lives of the Saint-Pierre family in Gascony when his hot-air balloon crashes. He also falls in love with the ethereal Claire, eldest of three sisters, despite her marriage to an aristocrat. Meanwhile, Sophie falls in love with him but tries not to let him know, and schoolgirl Mathilde delights him with her forthright humor. First novelist de Kretser explores the connections among the sisters, the artist, and area residents, using as backdrop the French Revolution and the growing unease it creates. Pages of descriptions of dress, food, landscapes, and Sophie's hobby of rose growing, delightful as they may be, slow the action to the speed of a pastoral summer afternoon. Only when the Reign of Terror takes hold does the tempo quicken. Recommended for readers who prefer fiction with a leisurely pace.--Andrea Lee Shuey, Shuey Consulting, Dallas Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Joanne Harris
A lovely, meticulously researched first novel that evokes the beginnings of the Terror in crisp, elegant, compassionate prose. The revolution according to de Kretser is a powerfully human affair, a collection of personal histories, betrayals and tragedies . . .
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
An impoverished noblewoman falls in love while trying to cultivate the first scarlet rose—in a moving and intelligently rendered first novel about the French Revolution as experienced in the provinces. In short, crisp chapters and impeccably elegant prose, Australian writer de Kretser depicts three sisters and their father struggling to survive as their world falls apart when political treachery and revolutionary terror invade even their quiet corner of the countryside. The story begins on July 14, 1789, when handsome American artist Stephen Fletcher falls from his balloon into the fields of the Saint-Pierre family. Widowed father Jean-Baptiste, eldest daughter Claire, 22-year-old Sophie, and precocious 8-year-old Mathilde make Stephen welcome on a day that will change their lives—and France—forever. Sophie, whose solace lies in the growing of roses, finds herself futilely attracted to Stephen, who falls in love with Claire, who is married to a wealthy but boorish noble. Jean-Baptiste, a gourmet and magistrate, is in favor of the revolution, but as democratic ideals give way to The Terror, he begins to worry about his daughters' safety. By 1793, the Saint-Pierres' village in Gascony will be controlled by a ruthless ideologue bent on exterminating every so-called enemy of the revolution, however innocent; and, as the guillotinings accelerate, Joseph Morel, a physician and a revolutionary with a conscience, will fall in love with Sophie and be encouraged by her father to press his suit. But love and happiness for the Saint Pierre sisters are subject to the times—in this case, times that may not be particularly hospitable to the ordinary joys of everydaylife.Memorable people, a touching love story, and history brought alive by a talented newcomer.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553381214
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/26/2001
  • Edition description: BANTAM TRA
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,210,835
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Michelle de Kretser

Michelle de Kretser was born in Colombo in Sri Lanka. She emigrated at 14 with part of her family to Melbourne, where she now lives. She worked for many years for Lonely Planet, and took a sabbatical to write a novel.

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    1. Hometown:
      Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 11, 1957
    2. Place of Birth:
      Colombo, Sri Lanka
    1. Education:
      B.A. (Hons), 1979; Maîtrise-ès-lettres, 1982

Read an Excerpt

On a cloudless summer afternoon in 1789, labourers working in the fields around Montsignac, a village in Gascony, saw a man fall out of the sky.

The balloon had drifted over a wooded ridge and into their valley. The farm-workers, straightening up one by one, shaded their eyes against the dazzle of sun on crimson and blue silk. The thing hung in the sky — sumptuous, menacing — like a sign from God or the devil.

Then there was thunder and fire, and a man plummeting earthwards.

It was the 14th of July. The world was about to change.

Stephen opened his eyes and fell in love.

It was right and natural that it should happen that way: he believed, like so many of his generation, in the coup de foudre — the lightning flash which reveals the lie of the land between a man and a woman. “An angel,” he sighed, not caring who might hear.

At once her face moved away, out of his field of vision. There was the sound of vigorous scratching.

He was propped up against cushions on a crimson sofa carved with scallop shells. There was slanting light, mote-speckled, and the scent of roses. He took in the old-fashioned beams, on which blue and red flowers had once been painted, and the unpapered walls. But as usual it was the pictures he really noticed: the large one directly opposite him showed a maiden with a basket of fruit, and the rest were no better. He had imagined that kind of thing would be different in France.

An elderly servant, long and thin as a nail, served him from a decanter on a silver tray. He sipped — was it brandy? something that made him choke — and looked around for her.

She was seated by the window, her head bent over a small garment at which she was stitching. But a child of about eight, solemn-faced and weighed down with dark curls, planted herself in front of him.

“Are you fatally injured? If you live, will you take me ballooning?”

“Mathilde, someone who has suffered an accident is ill-equipped for your conversation.” Stephen turned his head and saw a stout man in a mustard-yellow waistcoat, standing in front of the fireplace. “I envisage a speedier recovery for our visitor if you remove yourself from his vicinity. And take Brutus with you.”

Unperturbed, the child continued to gaze at Stephen with expectant curiosity. “I adore children,” he said and smiled at her. “They are so ... innocent and yet so perceptive in their apprehension of the world.”

“Oh no — another Rousseauist,” said the child with unconcealed disappointment. “I’m not like that at all.”

As she spoke, something manifested itself on the far side of the room. Stephen saw a squat black form, a squashed-in muzzle, a formidable underbite that exposed a row of yellow fangs. Swiftly and noiselessly, the apparition padded up to him and thrust its cold nose between his legs.

His knuckles whitened around his glass.

A tall young woman, whom he had not previously noticed, said, “Brutus!”

The creature withdrew its muzzle an inch or so and sneezed, scattering cold droplets. Its eyes were amber and unwavering, and made no secret of its low opinion of the intruder.

“It’s quite all right,” the child said kindly. “He doesn’t bite many people these days. He used to be much worse.”

“I trust you find the intelligence reassuring.” The stout gentleman crossed the room, obliging the dog to give reluctant ground. Stephen found himself looking up at panoramic grey eyebrows, and sharp brown eyes that pinned an enormous beaky nose into place. “Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Pierre” — holding out his hand — ”Welcome to Montsignac.”

“Stephen Fletcher.” He attempted to get to his feet but Saint-Pierre wouldn’t allow it, waving him back onto the cushions. Brown eyes and yellow ones continued their unhurried scrutiny of his person.

Eventually: “English?”


“Really? Then no doubt you have an opinion about turkeys.”

Stephen had just decided that a turkey must be something entirely different in France, when his host added, “But you speak our language very well.”

He identified it as a question. “I’m afraid you exaggerate. But my mother is a Frenchwoman, and since my father’s death we’ve lived with her family.”

The explanation seemed to satisfy Saint-Pierre. “Well, Mr. Fletcher, you appear not to have suffered any serious harm as a result of your unexpected descent into our midst.”

He had been away from home long enough to recognise that he was being gently mocked. Old World conversations required athleticism, a series of leaps between words and what they might mean. That was another thing he had not been prepared for.

“No. That is, I mean...” He wriggled experimentally and regretted it: “My ankle...” He drank more brandy and asked, “What happened?”

“Reports vary. My own conclusion, based on the available evidence, is that you leapt from a balloon that had caught fire. Fortunately, you landed on one of my haystacks. Some villagers carried you here. A doctor has been sent for, but the town is a few miles away.”

One of the young women — not the angel but the tall one — said, “Father, if the gentleman has hurt his ankle it’ll swell up. He should take off his boot.”

At this, the servant creaked forward. “No sense at all,” he remarked, to no one in particular, between bootlaces.

Saint-Pierre said, “Allow me to present my daughters, Mr. Fletcher. Mathilde you are already acquainted with. Then there is Sophie” — she nodded shyly at him — ”and Claire, my eldest.”

The angel looked into his eyes and smiled. Not an angel after all, thought Stephen, but the Madonna herself, with that blue dress.

(Though not perhaps the way it clung to her body.)

“Madame la Marquise de Monferrant,” murmured Saint-Pierre, his head on one side, detached, observing.

Somehow the back of Stephen’s hand struck the decanter, sending it crashing. The dog surged forward and fastened its jaws onto his shin.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Stephen Fletcher, the charismatic American balloonist, makes a dramatic entrance. Discuss his contribution to the plot. What does he symbolise, taking into consideration his origins and attitudes?

2. The 'trivial' and domestic (food, fashion, gardening) are extensively detailed. How does this preoccupation with the minutiae of 18th century life contribute to the unsettling sense of realism when the Terror invades this idyll?

3. De Kretser sets the rose at the centre of her novel. Why does she do this and what does the rose symbolise? What do you think the 'garden' represents? And to what extent does the 'Nature' imagery colour the novel as a whole?

4. Discuss the conflict of the progressive and the passive. Compare the fates of the 'progressive' characters such as Dr Morel with Saint-Pierre who judges himselfguilty of 'inattention, selfishness, complacency.' (p.281) Consider the Enlightenment philosophy and the Darwinian 'evolution' theory.

5. Compare the three Saint-Pierre sisters different attitudes and reactions to their rapidly changing worlds. Discuss the themes of denial, sublimation and obsession.

6. Consider the conclusion. Is there hope and a moral at the end? Examine the author's narrative stance. Is it dispassionate throughout the novel? Do you think she condemns Sophie and if so, why?

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