By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, by Margaret Dilloway

Gal Garner isn’t an easy woman to like.  Tough, uncompromising, self-centered — the 36-year-old biology teacher doesn’t let many people get to know her — she’s as thorny as the roses that she loves to grow.  Some of Gal’s prickliness is understandable, since she’s struggled with kidney disease since she was a child.  As a result, Gal has carefully pruned and cultivated her life into something that she can readily manage, by limiting her world to the school where she works, the clinic where she goes for regular dialysis appointments, her home, and the greenhouse where she tends to her beloved blooms.  Then her troubled teenage niece, Riley, appears at her aunt’s doorstep and disrupts the meticulous order in Gal’s universe.

It turns out that Gal’s sister (and Riley’s mom) has accepted a job in Hong Kong and — by the way — would Gal mind looking after her niece for a while?  Although Gal is initially appalled by this arrangement, the relationship that slowly develops between her and Riley has a transformative effect upon both of their lives.

Gal’s personal growth parallels the rose breeding that is her passion.  It’s her dream to create a new Hulthemia rose that will earn her a Queen of Show prize at a major competition.  The route to reach this goal requires years of patience and painstaking work cross-pollinating a variety of specimens…all in the hopes of one day (perhaps) breeding a rose that is beautiful, fragrant and unique.  As an individual, Gal resembles many of her greenhouse failures.  A potential beau wonders out loud whether she’s really as much of a “jerk” as he fears.  Yet Dilloway keeps cross-pollinating Gal with different characters: her art teacher buddy, Dara; Brad, a biology student who helps his teacher with many of her greenhouse chores; the intriguing new chemistry instructor, George Morton; the affable Mark Walters, another dialysis patient on the wait list for a new kidney; and, of course, Riley.  Will Gal ever get it right?  As exasperating a character as Gal can be, I found myself in a predicament similar to many of her friends and family in the book: I kept rooting for Gal to become a “real person.”

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns is Margaret Dilloway‘s engaging second novel, following How to Be an American Housewife.  This thoughtful book will appeal to readers who enjoy fiction about women’s lives and relationships, by authors such as Elizabeth Berg.  Dilloway explores similar themes in her novel, including the sustaining power of family, friendships and the empathy that these relationships develop in people.

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