Book review: ‘The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns’ by Margaret Dilloway

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!

ISBN: 0399157751 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘How To Be An American Housewife’ by Margaret Dilloway

I started Margaret Dilloway’s How To Be An American Housewife just before bed last week, distracted by my busy day and unable to calm my worried mind enough to sleep. From the opening sentence, I was surprised at how quickly I sunk into this beautiful, lyrical story — and how enchanted with Dilloway’s world I became. I didn’t put the book down again until 2 a.m. — and only when my eyes were literally shutting.

In this novel centering around identity, growth, healing and motherhood, our protagonists are Shoko and Suiko, or “Sue.” The Japanese wife of a former American GI, Shoko has become American through assimilation. She chose to marry Charlie, a shy redheaded military man, and left her native Japan after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima left her culture, land and family devastated. Sue is Shoko and Charlie’s divorced American daughter, a lovely woman with a 12-year-old daughter, Helena, who understands her mother little and their Japanese heritage even less.

Now aging and facing serious surgery, Shoko is looking back at the life she left in the Japanese countryside — and the family that disowned her when she married an American. Taro, Shoko’s brother, was particularly venomous and couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see the way out Shoko was forced to take. After her father chose her future husband out of a photo line-up of American suitors, Shoko said goodbye to her native country . . . and hello to a world even more foreign than the frightening one she abandoned. But toward the end of her life, did Shoko make the right choices? Could she have changed things for herself, for Charlie, for their son Mike — or for Sue?

From the novel’s first words to its rapid conclusion, I was enchanted with everything about Dilloway’s story. In the cover blurb, author Jamie Ford calls the story “tender and captivating” — a description I second whole-heartedly. I can think of little I disliked about Housewife, except that — for me — it ended far too soon.

Alternating between Shoko’s memories of her early life and teenage years across the Pacific and the present in California, Dilloway seamlessly moves us from time to the next. Shoko herself tells us her story, providing background and details in flawless language. We know that Shoko has faced discrimination in forms: especially after she arrived in the U.S. We know, too, that her English language skills are limited and her accent hard to understand. But as a narrator, Shoko is intelligent, witty, deft; she’s wonderful. The details Dilloway shares strike the impeccably perfect balance between telling and showing.

For as much as I loved Shoko, I had a harder time connecting with Sue — but I think that’s deliberate. Sue grows up in the face of her parents’ interracial relationship, making her their beloved and biracial daughter. Dilloway doesn’t dwell on Sue’s mixed ancestry, choosing instead to show the ways in which she could have advanced in life but hung back. Sue is not a “perfect” mother to Helena, just as Shoko was not a perfect mother to Sue. The women all clearly love one another, but it’s a faceted and imperfect love. But maybe that’s the most beautiful.

Oh, there’s so much to discuss in this fabulous book: the nature of Charlie and Shoko’s marriage; Mike’s difficulties and the nature of his reticence; the Japanese caste system that forced Shoko to shy away from a man she once loved; the effects of the atomic bombs on Japanese society, and the way the war changed everything. But I don’t want to give away the story or overshare, because I went into this novel mostly blind — and I loved that. What appealed to me most, from reading a description on Goodreads, was the cover. I’m obsessed with cherry blossoms — or sakura — and usually savor stories of immigrants and foreign cultures.

This novel was exquisite — one of the finest I’ve read this year — and I highly, highly recommend it to lovers of literary fiction, historical fiction and plain ol’ fine storytelling. If it’s any further proof of my love, too, I completed Housewife on a long lunch break from work. I desperately wanted to finish it just as much as I didn’t want it to end. I wound up returning late to my desk, shame-faced and tearful, after the conclusion of an exquisite story — and I was thrilled (thrilled!) with the ending though, after everything, it felt a bit hurried to me. Anything I allow to purposely make me late, busy worker-bee that I am, has earned my devotion.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 0399156372 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy won in Goodreads’ First Reads program