Roses (Meacham)

Leila Meacham, 2010
Grand Central Publishing
609 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780446550000

Spanning the 20th century, the story of Roses takes place in a small East Texas town against the backdrop of the powerful timber and cotton industries, industries controlled by the scions of the town's founding families.

Cotton tycoon Mary Toliver and timber magnate Percy Warwick should have married but unwisely did not, and now must deal with the deceit, secrets, and tragedies of their choice and the loss of what might have been—not just for themselves but for their children, and children's children.

With expert, unabashed, big-canvas storytelling, Roses covers a hundred years, three generations of Texans and the explosive combination of passion for work and longing for love. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1938 or 1939
Where—Minden, Louisiana, USA
Education—B.A., North Texas State University
Currently—lives in San Antonio, Texas

Beginning in the 1960s, Ms. Meacham taught English to high school students in a handful of cities in Texas. She published three romance novels in the mid-1980s with Walker & Company, but she mostly found the process burdensome. “I didn’t like the isolation,” she said. “I didn’t like the discipline required. I didn’t like the deadlines. So I put away my pen. The romance novel was not my calling.”

Ms. Meacham was a decade into her retirement, growing increasingly bored...when she returned to Roses, a manuscript that she had started in the 1980s. When she completed the novel, one of her friends made a call to a niece, who just happened to be married to David McCormick, a literary agent in New York. Mr. McCormick agreed to take on the book and later sold it to Grand Central, which published it in January 2010. Reviewers compared it to those door-stopper-size, soap operatic novels by the likes of Belva Plain and Barbara Taylor Bradford that were popular in the late 1970s and ‘80s. [She is currently working a a sequel to Roses.]....

Tumbleweeds [2012], which takes place between 1979 and 2008, begins in a small West Texas town and revolves around two star high school football players who fall for the same girl. Yet other than the contemporary setting, it is very much of a piece with Roses, with twists piled atop twists, and well-intentioned characters who seem to make a wreck of things. (Adapted from the New York Times "Texas Weekly.")

Critics Say . . .
This enthralling stunner, a good old-fashioned read, may herald the overdue return of those delicious doorstop epics from such writers as Barbara Taylor Bradford and Colleen McCullough. Meacham's multigenerational family saga, set in East Texas circa 1914–1985, charts the transformation of Mary Toliver, a wide-eyed 16-year-old heiress, into a calculating cotton plantation queen as hardheaded as Scarlett O'Hara. Her brother, Miles, goes off to WWI, returns home, but then goes back to France to marry Marietta, a French Communist, leaving Mary to deal with their plantation, Somerset, and Darla, their alcoholic mother (who later hangs herself ). Many years later, Mary, now an elderly, terminally ill widow, resolves to defeat the “Toliver Curse” and regrets “selling her soul for Somerset” and giving up her true love, Percy Warwick, the father of their secret child, to marry their friend Ollie DuMont, who helped her save Somerset when Percy refused. Meacham uses three well-balanced viewpoints: Mary's, Percy's and Rachel's, Mary's great-niece, who must confront Percy when she discovers some disquieting family information after Mary dies. A refreshingly nostalgic bouquet of family angst, undying love and “if onlys.”
Publishers Weekly

It's been almost 30 years since the heyday of giant epics in the grand tradition of Edna Ferber and Barbara Taylor Bradford, but Meacham's debut might bring them back. This story of two founding families in a small East Texas town spans the 20th century. When Mary Toliver inherits her family's cotton plantation, Somerset, in 1916, it tears apart her family; her mother turns to alcohol, and her brother leaves. Mary's obsession with Somerset even causes her to lose the love of her life, timber magnate Percy Warwick. By the time she's 85, Mary is determined that the family curse will not continue and, despite her grandniece's love of Somerset, plans for the plantation to be sold after her death. Mary Toliver and Percy Warwick can't share anything more than friendship, but Mary's actions might allow Rachel to see past Somerset to the man who loves her. Verdict: Readers who like an old-fashioned saga will devour this sprawling novel of passion and revenge. Highly recommended. —Lesa Holstine, Glendale P.L., AZ
Library Journal

First-time novelist Meacham’s sweeping, century-encompassing, multigenerational epic is reminiscent of the film Giant, and as large, romantic, and American a tale as Texas itself. —Hilary Hatton

The Wars of the Roses relocate to America as a struggle between the Toliver and Warwick families, descended respectively from the houses of Lancaster and York. Emigrating to South Carolina in 1670, these proud clans provided a youngest son each to the 1836 Revolution in Texas, where generations of their offspring have been scrapping ever since. It had to happen that one of the Tolivers would start a-smooching with one of the Warwicks, and so Mary Toliver and Percy Warwick find themselves here in bodice-ripping contortions and secret pacts. Do such stories ever end happily? Meacham begins her saga in recent times, when elderly Mary decides to act on long-hidden feelings by tweaking the noses of her assembled heirs, who patiently await their cut of fortune and a big, beautiful estate in the piney woods, part of a genteel town that Mary has pretty well single-handedly put in the pages of Southern Living and Texas Monthly, which "extolled its Greek Revivalist charm, regional cuisine, and clean restrooms." There are worse places on earth, and worse people than the feuding Texans, though as dark secrets go, Mary and Percy's is less dark than most gothic-romance readers are used to. Still, there are plenty of broken hearts (and at least one broken organ). As San Antonio novelist Meacham (Crowning Design, 1984, etc.) writes of one such instance, "He would never lack for her affection, commitment, and respect, but she felt the part of her that had loved and been loved by the only man she could ever care for curl up in some remote, hidden corner of her being like an animal whose time has come to die." Cue the violins and tears, as Meacham's saga winds slowly to a foreseeable but satisfying conclusion. A suitably long and intermittently engaging descendant of such Southern-fried epics as Gone with the Wind and Giant—just the thing for genre fans with time to spare.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Early in the story, an elderly Mary Toliver contemplates the changes that have taken place in the community she’s lived in all her life: Sassie now refers to “dinner” as “lunch” (37), the Toliver mansion has been outfitted with modern conveniences. Yet “the antebellum grace of the avenue remained the same, a small part of the South not yet gone with the wind” (38). How do these surface observations set the tone for the deep traditions and powerful changes that are described throughout the story? What things in your home (or community or family) have changed over time, and what has stayed the same?

2. When a desperate young Mary tries to find solace in the mother who has seemingly turned her back on both her daughter and her late husband, Darla replies, “You ask me what else he could have done.... He could have loved me more than he loved his land. That’s what he could have done” (55). This is the first of many times that we see bitterness over a loved one choosing Somerset above all else. What do you think it was about the land that was worth so much for so long, until Mary’s death?

3. From a young age, Mary is stubborn and headstrong, believing that she knows without a shadow of a doubt what is best for herself, her family, and Somerset. In a heated argument with Percy Warwick, she declares, “What none of you can see is that I am honor bound to carry out my father’s wishes.... I would never marry a man who didn’t understand and support my feelings for Somerset” (60). What is it besides the confidence of youth that gives Mary such conviction? Have you ever been similarly completely sure of something, only to realize later that you were wrong?

4. Amos Hines (and many others over the years) is shocked and skeptical when he reads of the Toliver curse: that any owner of Somerset will never have more than one heir. Mary was convinced of the curse’s reality by the end of her life, but what are other, more credible downsides to owning this particular piece of land? Is the curse truly specific to Tolivers?

5. Mary is positive that Lucy Gentry, despite her devotion to him, could never be the kind of woman that Percy could care for, yet Mary is truly taken by surprise when Percy tells her he plans to marry no one but her. How is it possible that she could have been so perceptive of his desires (and her own) on one count, yet completely blind on another?

6. Lucy insists to her roommate that she can be with Percy, saying, “My love for him will blind him” (90). Later she pushes herself into the Warwick household, determined to spend as much time with Percy as possible. Can such relentlessness and aggression work in the realm of love (keep in mind that Percy uses a similar tactic when he bargains with Mary to test whether they can live without one another)? How would you have dealt with such an unwanted visitor in your home if you were Percy’s mother?

7. Percy admits to Mary, “I want to marry you because I love you. I’ve loved you all your life, ever since you smiled at me through your cradle bars. I’ve never considered marrying anyone else (115). He’s taken the concept of love at first sight to a new level—is it really possible to love someone the way he has, for your entire life?

8. Think about how promises play out in the novel: Rachel’s promise to her late father to care for Somerset, Ollie’s promise to Mary that he’ll protect Percy, and Percy’s being left with a commission from Mary to keep Somerset out of Rachel’s hands are just a few of the pledges that are key to the story. What others are there? When were they beneficial, and when are they destructive?

9. When Mary complains that Miles has abandoned the Toliver family for Paris, Percy points out that “Miles has the same right to his choices as you to do yours” (148). At what point (if ever?) does individual happiness come before family obligation? How would Mary (at a young age and at an older age), Percy, Miles, and Rachel each answer that question?

10. Emmitt Waithe is disturbed by Mary’s desire to expand her farm with Fair Acres, saying, “This is not about vision. This is about blind desire that falls short of greed only because you love the land.... It’s your pride pushing you to buy Fair Acres” (170). Is he correct? What distinction, if any, is there between Mary’s desire to do right by her family and her desire to find satisfaction for herself?

11. “Apprehension and fatigue were her constant companions. Worry went to bed with her at night and awoke with her in the morning” (180). Why does Mary keep at this unrelenting, thankless farm work, particularly as Percy spends time with other women? What are her drives, and what are his?

12. Compounding the horror of Darla's suicide are the pink ribbons she left behind, the memory of which “writhed between [Mary and Percy] like a poisonous snake” (197). Roses and the colors pink, red, and white all have major significance in the story. What kind of symbolism to we ascribe to objects and their colors today? Why do you think that those objects that represent emotions are so important and powerful?

13. Throughout the ups and downs of their relationship, Percy is steadfast in his knowledge that they are meant to be together, while Mary—just as certain at every moment—
wavers: “It was inevitable that she and Percy would clash...steel against steel” (207); “This was love, she thought.... They would work out their differences. They needed each other” (213); “I am Somerset....To separate me from the plantation is to have half of me. I would not be the same. I’m convinced of that now” (236). Why is it so difficult for Mary to understand what she “knows,” only to realize, in the end, that she has made a mistake?

14. Had Mary and Percy married after all, do you think that their relationship would have worked out in the end?

15. Percy marries Lucy after he accepts that Mary is gone, but the new husband and wife realize they have made a grave misstep. “He’d married her knowing it was the idol she loved and not the man” (296). When have you gotten what you most wanted, only to realize that it wasn’t at all what you’d expected?

16. Wyatt’s teacher realizes that the boy picks on Matthew because he is lonely. Later, when Lucy realizes that Matthew is Percy’s son, she realizes that all this time, her husband has been lonely. Why were father and son, both such lonely figures, unable to find a bond until the end of Matthew’s life? How does this relationship compare to the other parent/child connections (or lack of) in the story?

17. So many of the conflicts in Roses arise from traditions: keeping Somerset in the Toliver family above all else leads to a host of problems, the impossibility of financial aid among the Toliver, Warwick, and DuMont families drives Mary and Percy to commit fraud, and everything repeats itself again with Rachel and Matt’s generation until Mary’s codicil ends the lock on Somerset. What place do traditions have in your life, and how do they help or hinder you in your endeavors?

18. Discussing all the troubles that have arisen from their decisions, Mary and Percy are distraught about what they are responsible for until Percy suggests, “Maybe we should begin by forgiving ourselves for the pain we’ve caused” (363). At what point does one have to shift from atoning for the past, and look to moving into the future with a clear conscience?

19. Both Mary’s mother Darla and Rachel’s mother Alice have rifts between themselves and their daughters caused by Somerset. How are the two mothers the same, and how are they different? What were the two daughters’ reactions to their distant mothers?

20. “So the difference, Rachel, is that your father would look upon the proceeds of the sale of Aunt Mary’s property as compensation. He’d consider it charity to share in the profits of what he ran away from” (429). Is this legitimate reasoning? Do you think that William would agree with his wife’s assertions about his perceptions?

21. Should Mary have revealed the necessary fraud she had to undertake to the nephew that she inadvertently insulted? Should she have warned Rachel of the power of Somerset before cultivating her grand-niece’s passion for farming? What knowledge does the older generation owe its heirs, and when should that knowledge be passed down?

22. Did Mary really “save” Rachel, as she told Amos at the beginning of the story?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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