Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
This is the second historical fiction novel by Martha Hall Kelly inspired by the life of World War heroines. Her earlier book, Lilac Girls, published in April 2016, became an international bestseller. It introduced readers to the real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday, from the famous Woolsey family of New York City who were staunch abolitionists and philanthropists.
In this second novel, Lost Roses, released in April 2019, we again encounter the Woolsey family and learn how Caroline’s mother, Eliza, devoted much time to the displaced White Russian women during wartime. She helped organise the American Central Committee for Russian Relief which found work and homes for these women in their new country and raised money through the sale of goods made by Russian refugees in Paris. This novel is a prequel to the Lilac Girls novel.
Through extensive research of the Woolsey women; from autobiographies and books about former Russian aristocrats, and sources depicting life in Russia and France at this time, Kelly has produced authentic characters and situations to which her readers can easily relate. The journey for the reader is presented through the voices of three equally indomitable women from St. Petersburg to Paris under the shadow of World War One.
Each chapter in the novel is allocated to one of these women who give their own experiences of events at that time. Though all have separate lives and circumstances, they are all cleverly linked to provide a cohesive storyline. There are four parts to this story and the prologue and epilogue are provided by yet another female voice who played a pivotal role in the storyline but who tragically disappeared from it at an early stage. Though she is very young, her forethought was to be of great help to others as the story unfolds.
Sofya’s narration tells of her close relationship to the family of Tsar Nicholas II and also to one of the Woolsey women with whom she shares many visits. These two women are in constant written contact despite the physical distance between them.
Eliza, one of the Woolsey women, experienced the early days of the Russian Revolution in Europe, returning to America just as Germany declared war on France. She becomes very concerned for her friend when letters from Russia dry up.
Varinka, a young peasant girl whose father has died, lives with her mamka under the guardianship of her father’s apprentice. Taras has just been released from prison for Bolshevik affiliations. He will become a focal figure in the persecution of White Russians, even in Paris.
Entwined with these storylines is the welfare of a little boy.
Each of the narrators has her own personal battles to encounter as well as being part of a wider historical narrative. They all experience loss and dream of a better future. They all hope for a second chance of a happier life in their quest for love and freedom.
I thoroughly enjoyed this author’s writing style with the added richness of information about places, myths and proverbs – ‘one of her favourite cure-alls, … (was to) quote one of her Japanese proverbs, like: Better to be a crystal and be broken than to be a tile upon the housetop. I smiled at that and walked on, broken crystal that I was’ (336). Her compassionate detailed description of a funeral in chapter 45 was also an insight into Russian culture at that time.
I enjoyed the extra story around an enamelled bracelet with two dragon heads, ‘whose gaping mouths met where the bracelet opened. The beasts stared each other down, their eyes set with red jewels’ (307). The reader is told that it is of Viking design and that ‘in Norse mythology, a giant serpent encircles the world, growing larger each day until it is big enough to devour itself. They believed that moment would trigger the end of the world’ (307). This item was to play an important role in the story.
It was also interesting to read that the Parisians had removed the great stained-glass windows from Notre-Dame and replaced them with pale yellow panes during the war.
I recommend the novel, Lost Roses, by American author, Martha Hall Kelly, and look forward to reading her next novel. I believe it is to be a second prequel to Lilac Girls, taking place during The Civil War and will tell the story of more of Caroline Woolsey’s ancestors, the incredibly philanthropic women and staunch abolitionists who tended to wounded soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefield.
By Martha Hall Kelly
ISBN:9 781760 892616