THE TRYSTS & SAGAS OF ST. PAUL: Belynda Cianci on Marisha Chamberlain’s The Rose Variations

the rose variations

The Rose Variations, Marisha Chamberlain, Soho Press

The Rose Variations by Marisha Chamberlain follows the story of Rose MacGregor, the “Girl Composer” in residence at a St. Paul University (based on Macalester College) in the 1970’s. Freshly emancipated from a strained home-life back in New Hampshire, Rose struggles to discover herself and what she truly wants out of this new chapter of her life. She comes to Minnesota armed with only a cello and a few personal possessions, determined to secure a tenured position and prove her worth. She vows to escape the distractions of romance, instead focusing on cultivating her music. Despite her best intentions, Rose is helpless to avoid the fray, soon finding herself swept up in the trysts and sagas of St. Paul. The politics of a school that considers her only a novelty, the tumultuous relationships with her colleagues Allen and Frances, and the intrusion of wild younger sister Natalie all serve as the backdrop to Rose’s own host of dalliances and entanglements.

Chamberlain wins us over with an offbeat cast of characters who enchant, surprise, and at times even disappoint us. Her sympathy and affection for them is clear, but even in this sympathy the novel is not just a bumpy ride to a collection of neatly packaged happy endings. Her aim is never truer than in the moments she reminds us how crushingly unfair life can be. She takes the time to acknowledge not just the moments of deep loneliness and the height of new passions that captivate our lives, but the little storms, the near misses and might-have-beens, the triumphs and setbacks that steer our course.

“Rose” is at its heart an exploration of ordinary lives we lead, lives which never take us to our intended destinations. While Rose’s focus occasionally strays from the religion of sheet music and concertos she has chosen for herself, this is forgivable in the larger context. Her greatest appeal is in her fumbling, grasping humanity, and nothing is more human than distraction. Where novelty intervenes, Rose’s music takes a step back, but never for long. Chamberlain’s insight into unedited, everyday life makes the journey we take compelling; she begins with a story that could become tedious in the wrong hands, and fills it with a careful balance of grace and contradictions that make it believable, and embraceable.

The narrative style of “Rose” is earthy and tranquil. Chamberlain observes the world with an artist’s eye and describes it in delicious prose, reminding us of her previous successes as a poet. Her attention to the changing seasons serves to facilitate the pace of the story, as we journey through the “boiling green springtime” of Rose’s hopeful arrival in Minnesota, the “flower-thickened sounds” of summer in the northern countryside, and the harrowing winter storm that mirrors the tumult of the book’s final chapters. Although the story takes place over several years, time moves beautifully throughout, immersing us in a transient landscape that is felt as much as visualized.

“The Rose Variations” is a wonderful debut for Chamberlain, and a book that will have readers eagerly anticipating the next offering from a very talented voice.


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