SAN DIEGO -- Margaret Dilloway, bestselling San Diego author of How to Be an American Housewife, introduces in her second novel, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, a protagonist who is not particularly likeable (the very likeable author will be reading at Warwick’s in La Jolla Thursday, when the book is released by G. Putnum’s Sons).
Gal Garner, short in stature and in tolerance of others (whether the latter is also a symptom of her chronic kidney disease remains a mystery), manages to teach biology at a private high school, coach the school’s Science Olympiad team, spend three or four nights a week at a dialysis clinic, and breed roses competitively. Yet, despite the many people whose lives she brushes by, she is able to maintain only three intimate relationships — with her parents and her best friend Dara, the school’s art teacher, who puts up with an awful lot of self-absorbed behavior from Gal.
Gal’s persistent plodding through her routinely antisocial life hits a detour when Riley, her 15-year-old niece, arrives at her doorstep unexpectedly. She brings with her some meager belongings, the requisite teen hormones, and the manifestations of a fractured relationship with her substance-abusing mother, who has taken off for foreign lands. The inevitable story that follows — of resilience, familial love and loyalty, and transformation — emerges amidst the tender and pragmatic protocols of serious rose breeding.
What a cool premise — and well-executed!
As she did in her debut novel, Dilloway introduces each chapter in Roses with Thorns with an excerpt from a fictional guide that serves as a metaphor for the chapter’s action. In this book, the fictional publication is Winslow Blythe’s Complete Rose Guide (SoCal Edition), and it serves its purpose well, succinctly illuminating the ebb and flow of a rose’s lifecycle, as it mirrors the characters’ development.
Dilloway artfully wends the intricacies of rose floriculture with her characters’ teen angst and epiphany, an anguished wait for a new kidney, lost and new-found friends, reconciliation, and hope — even allowing green tendrils to entwine with Gal’s curmudgeonly character and her sardonic sense of humor, which occasional prevails over her more common withdrawal. She is so persnickety, that a possible love interest flippantly asks, “Are you a jerk, or not?” Such humor, coming from those around her or Gal herself, makes her more tolerable and more human, although for the most part she remains a bit of a pill throughout the book, and this is interesting.
Although Gal is certainly not among the likes of John Kennedy Toole’s depressing and flatulent Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces or Ronald Everett Capps’ besotted and creepy Bobby Long in Off Magazine Street, Gal is an oddly interesting choice for a hero. The book’s epigraph suggests a rationale. It is a quote from the rather quotable Alphonse Karr, French 19th century author, newspaper editor and floriculturist: “Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns. I am thankful that thorns have roses.”
Rather than grumbling about an unlikeable protagonist, we might celebrate Dilloway’s bold offering to the literary world of a chronically-obstinate, chronically-ill woman who nurtures roses better than relationships, but who is willing to try to do better, while quietly battling for her life. This makes Gal a refreshing departure from much of what passes for heroes today, as it makes The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns a thoughtful and quirky character study.
What: Thursday 7:30 pm, author talk and reading at Warwick’s Books, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla, 858-454-0347.
Author website: margaretdilloway.com