A review of The Forgotten Roses by Deborah Doucette

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Forgotten Roses
by Deborah Doucette
Owl Canyon Press
Paperback: 250 pages, February 20, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0991121106

Rebecca Griffin, central character of The Forgotten Roses, has a seemingly perfect life. As a little girl she dreamed of marrying and raising a family, and now, in early middle age, she is the mother of teenaged Dana and preteen Lily, and wife of Drew Griffin, a college professor. Her family roots go back to East Boston’s Italian community, but she has moved beyond that crowded neighbourhood of rigid social rules to a charming historic Massachusetts village, where she lives in a spacious home with character. For older generations, being Italian meant discrimination. For Rebecca it means family ties and, ultimately, a break with some social mores.

Into Deborah Doucette’s lyrical narration creep some cleverly planted discordant notes that foreshadow future developments.  During a warm family scene in which children are praised and delicious food served, a conversation springs up, showing a judgmental underside, with the use of such pejorative terms as “putana” and “mala femina”. Some of Rebecca’s difficulties have their roots in her upbringing. She was taught never to contradict a boy, and in any argument or competition, to always let the boy win. Rebecca grew up accommodating and unassertive. When she met Drew in college she dropped out to support him through graduate school. Now, Drew treats her, not only as his intellectual inferior, but as the family problem solver, whose job it is to make his life run smoothly. “Drew’s parents belonged to the country club and golfed, wearing matching pink and green shirts with crests over the pocket,” we read. “Rebecca’s parents belonged to St. Patrick’s parish and renovated in their underwear.”

Rebecca was, and is, physically attractive, loving and capable. When their girls were young, Drew took an interest in them, especially Dana, but now that she is a teenager he has withdrawn from parenting. He has also moved into the spare room, and stays out late at night. Clearly his distanced attitude is the cause of Dana’s rebelliousness, although Rebecca, being more available, is the one Dana acts out against.

Rebecca is fortunate in being able to escape into her successful real estate career, work which allows the author to gently satirize the wealthy newcomers to rural New England villages, who want everything to remain quaint and rustic, yet complain if there are areas where their cell phones don’t work.  The listing of an historical house on nine acres brings Rebecca into contact with elderly, decrepit Harold Dietzhoff, the owner, a retired psychologist from the nearby women’s prison at Warrington.

One day, taking him some food her mother made for her, she pauses in his garden and notices the roses planted by his first wife. Rebecca admires the heritage blooms which were like those her grandmother used to grow. Mysteriously, the drone of the bees and the fragrance of the pine trees in the heat overcome Rebecca, making her feel “a drift, an overwhelming pull towards sleep… the not unpleasant sensation that her bones have melted and she is smoothly sliding down the side of the car to the pavement below.”

When Mr. Dietzhoff is moved to a nursing home and Rebecca supervises renovations for the prospective buyers, a local man, Sully, tells her about mysterious cries heard years ago from the woods on the Dietzhoff property, back in the days when Dietzhoff brought home female prisoners for “respite therapy”. When a reunion of the women in Rebecca’s family leads to discussion of Rose, the Italian community’s cautionary tale, Rebecca wonders about Sully’s rumours and poor Rose’s fate.

Teenaged Rose transgressed the social mores of the East Boston Italian community in the 1940s by wearing a leather jacket and hanging out on streetcorners with boys. After her affair with a married man, her father asked the police to arrest her, and she was incarcerated at Warrington, where, soon, she was reported to have hanged herself. Her personal effects included her shoes, “all bent and mangled.” Her family believed she had been dragged to death, struggling, but, being afraid of authority, they did not seek an investigation.

In this low-key feminist novel, the parallels between Rose’s rebelliousness and Dana’s add to the tension. Dana plays hookey with an abusive boyfriend, hanging out in the woods and on the cliffs, and falls in with a drinking, drugging crowd. But when Drew recommends a drastic step in disciplining her, Rebecca breaks up with him and tells him not to come home again.

Other women with troubled lives include the first Mrs. Dietzhoff, who committed suicide, and the Dietzhoffs’ daughter, Serena.  A photo in the Dietzhoff house shows Harold and his daughter as a little girl, in which he dwarfed and overshadowed her.  Contacted by her father’s lawyer about the sale of the property, Serena and her lover steal back to the village for some sorting, snooping and ultimately, an extreme act of revenge. The passages from  Serena’s viewpoint validate Rebecca’s growing unease over the Dietzhoff house.

Doucette heightens the suspense and tension with sinister details; for instance, Dietzhoff’s eyes are “compelling, dark at the centre, glittery like tacks”. A big scary bronze owl hangs just outside the window of Serena’s old room. A mysterious metal box is discovered by a workman who is searching for the septic tank cover.

The climax is a dramatic storm which brings together four of the women characters. Although the goings-on of yesteryear are not explained to my satisfaction, I was pleased with the mother-child reconciliation, and liked the use of the “flash forward” technique at the end. Like New England author Alice Hoffman, Deborah Doucette makes effective use of the supernatural, adding another level of meaning and affirming the value of sensory impressions and intuition. With The Forgotten Roses, Deborah Doucette made a great debut.

Ruth Latta’s most recent novel is The Songcatcher and Me (Ottawa, Baico, 2013, $20, baico@bellnet.ca)