by Lisa Wingate, contemporary (2003)
NAL, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-20579-0
Lisa Wingate's debut novel Tending Roses inspires me. I am going to set down in writing the most overblown, romanticized made-for-Lifetime story of my life, emphasizing How Hard It Was and How Courageous I Was, and then drop the story where the kids can find it. That way, they will love me even more that they will find any excuse to put me on a pedestal. I may finally get that Extreme Makeover I have always wanted after all.
Our career-oriented townie couple Kate and Ben Bowman are naturally unhappy people who are in need of happy slice of Americana's finest apple pie. Their infant son Joshua's health problems result in a huge pile of medical bills that strain their already strained financial circumstances. This problem is lurking at the back of Kate and Ben's minds as they drive to Missouri where Kate's grandmother Rose lives alone in the ranch. They are supposedly visiting for Christmas, but Kate also has the uncomfortable burden of having to convince Rose to allow the family to place her in a nursing home. Rose nearly burned down the ranch the last time and they are worried of a repeat of such incident.
But you know how things are. Kate finds an account of Rose's past and immediately starts becoming drawn to the Words of the Wise Countryside People.
This book is a very romanticized tale of Southern Old Woman's Wisdom that would appeal to readers who prefer to escape completely from reality when it comes to the stories they read. For the readers who prefer a little bit of realism in their stories, they would most likely find Lisa Wingate's preachy soapbox annoying and even insulting at times. For example, Kate and Ben's money problems are dismissed entirely by Rose with an insulting "Maybe you should want less?". Rose causes Ben to lose a business contract that he needs really badly to keep the money coming, but again, she puts on a holier-than-thou "there are other things in life other than money" air. This story doesn't even address the pertinent issues, instead it brings up issues and sweeps them aside with a naive "there's more to life than money" manner, as if every problem the couple have is boiled down to them being too materialistic or too selfish. It isn't. The kid will still be sick and the money problems will still be there, no matter how often Kate and Ben join Rose in handing out food to the needy.
That's my problem with this book. Its homespun value propagandas don't seem to be operating in a thinking manner. I know, it will be so easy if we can just want less and spend more time away from the rat race, but the problems won't be going away if we do that. Kate and Ben are already justifying Rose's actions for her since they first read her story, as if Rose having lived a hard life automatically makes her the word of authority in life. Rose isn't and she shouldn't be.
The author's preachy messages in this book come off like knee-jerk reactions to a situation. Wanting to put an old coot in a home? Bad, bad, bad. Oh, and it's your fault - you should have dumped the career and take care of the old coot! Bad, bad, bad. You have money problems? Spend less, spend more time thinking about family, want less! The message at the end of the day is that if everyone stops being too focused on money and stops being so selfish, the world will be such a better place. It is this kind of inane prattle and insipid overgeneralization of the way life works, this stupidly championing forth an idealized vision of rural life in unrealistically rosy hues, that gives Americana stories a bad name and Tending Roses is no different.
Instead of actually having Kate, Ben, and Rose actually work out their differences, Ms Wingate chooses to indulge in sappy melodrama and make Rose out to be the patron saint of the apple pie. At the end of the day, the problems faced by Ben and Rose magically disappear and everybody is happy when they all choose to live in the ranch like Rose always wanted them to. The reader's enjoyment of this story hinges on how willing they are to accept this premise as a valid resolution and not view it in the same way as I do: a cop-out ending to a story that uses melodrama and foolish sentimentalism to drive home a message irregardless of context or pragmatism.
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