Galilee “Gal” Garner has a well-ordered life. The 36-year-old science teacher lives alone in the California suburbs, dividing her time between lecturing students and tending to her beloved roses. She’s unattached — and on dialysis. While waiting for the kidney that will save her life, Gal relies on friends and her well-meaning if overbearing mother to help her through the trials of her disease.
When an unexpected visitor from San Francisco disrupts her routine, Gal is left to make sense of another hair-brained scheme cooked up by her big sister. Riley, Gal’s teen niece, is adrift — and in need of a home. With Gal’s sister abroad, ostensibly for “work,” Gal enrolls Riley in the Catholic school where she works and tries to provide a stable home life for her. But the prickly teen is as defensive and private as Gal herself — and they’ll have to reach a compromise before either can move forward.
Margaret Dilloway’s The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns features one of the most irritable main characters I’ve ever encountered. Gal is bitter, jaded, holier-than-thou — a woman who sticks to her guns and doesn’t care who dislikes her. Even those trying to help her — like Dara, her best friend — bear the brunt of Gal’s ill moods and whims. And when someone tries to point them out to her, she becomes even more pious.
It grated on me . . . for a while. Gal walks around correcting others’ grammar, pretending like she doesn’t have a crush on the cute new teacher, flunking students because they just didn’t “study hard enough” on her seemingly impossible tests. Her school’s headmaster takes her to task for her incredible rules, even by Catholic school standards, and still? She will not budge.
That should be Gal’s tagline: Will Not Budge. Will not compromise. Not about her clothing choices (terrible), her grading, her cultivation of roses. Once Gal makes her mind up, that’s it.
For 100 pages, I wanted to clobber her. I wanted to shake her and demonstrate just how selfish and acrid she was being. Riley was certainly no saint, but she was a teenage girl; at least she could use that in her own defense. Gal seemed like nothing more than a spoiled pity-party-thrower — a woman who levied others’ kindness against them and took advantage of their good intentions.
But then. Without realizing it, something clicked over. The animosity I felt for Gal switched to compassion. By bringing her niece into her home, Gal became more compassionate — and more adaptable. She understood the error of her ways, and that she’d blamed others for things for far too long. That the anger and jealousy she felt for Becky, her older sister, was maybe misguided . . . or, at the very least, the symptom of a much larger issue.
Gal began to see there are two sides to every story. And that maybe she’d only ever peered at one.
Then I liked her.
The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns centers on family, illness, friendship, hope. Though the descriptions of rose cultivation sometimes felt like a little much, this story was Gal’s — and told from her first-person perspective. Before Riley, the roses were her world — and I enjoyed the snippets of caring for the blossoms at the beginning of each chapter.
I absolutely loved Dilloway’s How To Be An American Housewife — it was one of my favorite reads of 2010 — and wasn’t disappointed with her follow-up, though I connected with Dilloway’s Japanese mother and American daughter more than Gal and Riley. Still, Dilloway is a vivid, lush and poignant writer who has more than earned herself a spot on my personal “must read” list. If you’re a fan of contemporary fiction, family dynamics and complicated sister relationships, don’t miss her sophomore novel.
3.5 out of 5!