Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

book cover

The Rose of Sebastopol
by Katharine McMahon

Trade Paperback: 412 pages
Publisher: Berkley
First Released: 2007, 2010

Author Website

Source: Review copy from the publisher.

Book Description (slightly modified from author's website):
In 1854, the Crimean War grinds on, and as the bitter winter draws near, the battlefield hospitals fill with dying men. In defiance of Florence Nightingale, Rosa Barr - young, headstrong and beautiful - travels to Balaklava, determined to save as many of the wounded as she can. For Mariella Lingwood, Rosa's cousin, the war is contained within the pages of her scrapbook, in her London sewing circle, and in the letters she receives from Henry, her fiance, a celebrated surgeon who has also volunteered to work within the shadow of the guns.

When Henry falls ill and is sent to recuperate in Italy, Mariella impulsively decides she must go to him. But upon their arrival at his lodgings, she and her maid make a heartbreaking discovery: Rosa has disappeared and Henry is desperate to find her.

Following the trail of her elusive and captivating cousin, Mariella's epic journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian London to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea and the tragic city of Sebastopol. In the Crimea, she encounters Rosa's dashing stepbrother, a reckless cavalry officer whose complex past - and future - is inextricably bound up with her own as they try to discover what happened to Rosa.

As her quest leads her deeper into the dark heart of the conflict, Mariella's ordered world begins to crumble and she finds she has much to learn about secrecy, faithfulness and love. But, in the thick of a war fought on more fronts than one, she also discovers a strength and passion she never knew she possessed.

The Rose of Sebastopol is a historical (with a bit of mystery) set mainly in 1844 and 1854-1855 in England, Italy, and the Crimea. If you like nuanced historical novels, you'll probably find this one a lovely read.

The historical details were expertly woven into the story background, bringing the society, setting, etc., vividly alive in my imagination. Yet the details served the story rather than being the point of the story. The level of detail given for the Crimea landscape made me wonder if the author had really been there (which, according to her website, she has). The settings varied widely, from higher-class home life to various hospitals to a lead mill to the war front, yet they all had depth.

The characters were complex and nuanced. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, but I understood why they acted the way they did and wanted to know what happened to them all. The novel maintained a nice level of suspense that kept me turning the pages.

The story switched between Mariella's childhood, events in 1854 leading up to Rosa going to the war hospitals, and what happened in 1855 after Henry turned up sick and Rosa went missing. I didn't find these different time lines difficult to keep track of, though, and this set-up kept the suspense up for me--how did all three time lines tie together to explain what had happened?

Though Mariella was the point of view character, the story was about Rosa--it started with Rosa ("what happened to Rosa?") and ended with Rosa (solving of what happened and why). Mariella's future wasn't neatly tied up for the reader, though it was clear where things were headed. I usually hate untidy endings for POV characters, yet I didn't feel like I was left hanging with things left unresolved. While I would have liked to know more, her ending fit what she learned in the novel--that unexpected, uncontrollable things happen so don't plan too firmly too far ahead. In a way, the story structure was that of a mystery, with the story ending when the mystery was solved.

There was a minor amount of swearing and a very minor amount of cussing. There was unmarried sex with a very small amount of explicit foreplay (removing clothing, upper body touching). There was a lot of sexual tension, but not really of the erotic kind. Overall, I'd highly recommend this novel was well-written, fairly clean reading.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
Italy, 1855

We arrived in Narni late on a Sunday evening. Although the door to the Hotel Fina was locked the driver roused a servant who stumbled out with creased shirt tails, brought in our luggage and showed us to a bedroom that smelled of unwashed feet. Nora took away my cloak and bonnet, then I snuffed the candles and lay down. A man was shouting in the distance, perhaps the worse for drink. Instead of sleeping I rode through the night as if still in a carriage jolting over badly made roads across the plains of Italy. Eventually I heard a clock strike five and the rumble of a cart in the square outside and I fell asleep to the sound of women’s raised voices and the clash of a pail against stone.

I woke to a blade of sunlight sliced between the shutters – it was nearly mid-morning. Nora was standing over me with a breakfast tray and a letter from Mother which I didn’t read. None of the clothes in my portmanteau was fit to wear, being too crushed, so I put on my travelling dress again and said we would go out at once. In the lobby I struggled to make myself understood by the proprietress, who was dressed in black and whose mouth was pulled down at the ends, as if from despair, but when I showed her Henry’s address she drew us a rough map.

Narni was an ancient town built near the top of a hill and the Hotel Fina was at its centre, in a little square. What with the bunch of women round a fountain and the confusion of streets and shopfronts there was no telling which direction was the right one so we set off at random up a flight of steps and under an arch. The sun was very hot, the street oppressively narrow and our travelling clothes too heavy so we stopped under a shady porch while I consulted the map.

A cluster of children formed around us, I asked one of them for ‘Via del Monte, Signora Critelli?’, and he set off back the way we’d come. We followed him, recrossed the little square, and this time plunged down a steep street with the houses built so close on either side I could almost touch them. Washing of the most intimate nature hung from balconies or was suspended like dingy carnival flags from wall to wall. I was surprised to find Henry lodging in such a poor quarter.

Eventually the child paused in front of an open doorway where there was a smell of wet stone and flowers because someone had just watered a pot of narcissi. I hovered at the entrance, my resolve gone, wishing that I had never left England or that at the very least had sent Henry a note to let him know I was on my way. Now that I was here I wondered whether he would think it appropriate. I was also afraid of seeing him ill. What if he didn’t recognise me, or I him? Unlike Rosa, I never knew what to do in the face of sickness. I glanced at Nora but she raised an eyebrow as if to say: You got us into this; don’t expect any encouragement from me.

In the end I crept along the passage to a kitchen where a woman stood with her arms immersed in a wash bowl. She squinted at me through the droplets of water that trickled into her eyes.

‘Dr Henry Thewell?’ I asked.

She gaped, dried her face first on a towel then on her skirt, leaned her hand on the door frame and let fly a torrent of Italian which ended at last in a question.
I shook my head. ‘Non capisco. Inglese. Mi chiamo Mariella Ling-wood. Ma-ri-ella. I am engaged to be married to Dr Thewell. Dov’e Henry Thewell?’

I had learned from watching my father that it is better, in moments of crisis, to speak quietly rather than to shout. Certainly Signora Critelli calmed down; she went on talking but less rapidly, wiped her hands again, gestured that I should get out of the way and led me up a narrow flight of stairs to the first floor where she knocked sharply on a door, flung it wide and announced me with the words: ‘Signorina Inglese.’

I took a step further, and another.

Read more from chapter one.

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