The reader of this book did a commendable job. The story, narrated by Nora, is about her life and her death. It begins with the friendship of two young, naive girls, Nora and Grace, who are bound together on a path of self-destruction, making bad choices, harboring foolish guilt, bearing misguided shame and clueless about the ways of the real world. The results are devastating. Perhaps, in the end, the reader might think there is hope for one of the characters, but basically, these are unhappy people looking for love and acceptance wherever they can find it, and then they discover themselves to be unhappy with what they find.
When Nora was 12 years old, the winds of war were blowing and her mother sent her to live in the countryside to protect her. It was believed that London was going to be bombarded soon with dreadful consequences. The River’s family had volunteered to take an evacuee, and young Grace Rivers chose Nora out of the crowd of children. Mr. Rivers was the rector of a church and spent most of his time there or writing sermons. Mrs. Rivers loved to garden and play the piano. The two rarely came together to interact.
Nora is amazed with their home and the garden with its profusion and scent of flowers, notably the roses. Flowers were extravagant and were never part of her life before. Nora was not from an affluent home. Grace had been away at school, but now she had to remain at home and the two were homeschooled by Reverend Rivers. Grace hated school and Nora loved it, drinking in all the learning she could, educating herself about things she had never known and learning to speak properly. She loved her “new home”. Grace and Nora became like sisters to each other, but to Nora, the relationship was deeper. She realized she loved Grace as other women loved men. She knew it was against her religion and Nora fought her feelings, but as time went by, she began to accept it, but kept her feelings secret for fear of losing Grace.
When the attacks on London proved to be less than expected and children were returned to their homes, Nora chose to stay with the Rivers family, rejecting her own mother. It was three long years before her mom was able to visit, and by that time, their relationship had changed. Nora had moved on, speaking differently and behaving differently, and her mom had stayed the same. She was ashamed of her, her poverty and her backwardness. She forgot all about the deep love her mother had for her. Later on, when her mom was killed in a bombing raid, she also finds out that the Reverend Rivers is harboring very improper feelings toward her, and also, she discovers that she is a replacement child for a child they have lost, Grace’s twin. She is ashamed of the Reverend’s behavior toward her, and she is filled with remorse about her feelings toward her mom. She decides to run away. When Grace discovers her plan and threatens to expose it, she allows her to go with her to London. The escape is haphazard and not thought out well. It is from that point that the plot becomes a bit unbelievable. I know the times were different, I know children were more mature at a younger age, but these girls were unusually naïve, perhaps it was the effect of being raised in a church environment for Grace, but what was Nora’s excuse? She was raised in an urban area where life was “mean”. Was she so blinded by her love for Grace that she couldn’t think straight? Her character is developed as a bright young girl yet she becomes a befuddled fool at times, acting only in anger. Since the exact age of Grace and Nora is not always clear at any of these moments of trauma, I am uncertain as to whether or not the behavior is appropriate.
Once in London, the girls are caught unawares. They are on the street with nowhere to go and are woefully unprepared for the state of the damaged city, the rationing and the decadence, but mostly, of their own fears. When they are befriended by a strange man, Nora’s better judgment pulls the more eager Grace away from him. When, in anger, she leaves her behind, running helter-skelter through the streets, they somehow find each other and oddly enough, they also find the man again, Bernard, and he offers them a place to stay. It is at this point that the reader will probably have to suspend disbelief, because otherwise the story might not be credible. Grace is overwhelmed and flattered by Bernard’s attention and wants to go to his apartment, but Nora does not trust his motives. However, they do accept his offer, for what other choice did they have?
Before long, Nora is jealous of Bernard’s attention to Grace and of Grace’s feelings toward him. When she investigates the boxes in the apartment they are supposedly watching for Bernard, she discovers that he is dealing in contraband, ration books, sugar, irons, and other things in short supply. She warns Grace about him, but Grace thinks Nora is merely jealous because he chose her first. Soon Grace finds herself in a compromised state and discovers Bernard is married with children. Not wanting to jeopardize her relationship with him, she doesn’t reveal she is pregnant, and instead, with Nora’s help, an illegal abortion is arranged for her. The story descends rapidly from this point into one of self-destruction for both girls.
Eventually, though, Nora moves on with her life and marries George, a man who is wheelchair bound. He owns a bookstore, and he mentors her so that she can run it on her own one day. When she is older, ill and no longer able to handle the work, she sells it to Steven, who becomes one of her only friends. She is carrying a terrible secret and the guilt and the shame has made her fearful of all close relationships. However, one day, as she sits looking out of her window, she spies a young girl just staring into space. She sees her often and realizes that the girl is pregnant and probably alone. She is drawn to her and contrary to all she has done in the past, she ventures out and takes it upon herself to try and engage her in conversation. The girl rejects her, and Nora recognizes that her reactions are very much like her own. When, suddenly, she no longer appears, Nora goes to find her. Entering her apartment, she finds her in the throes of labor. Nora has read many medical books because she herself is ill. She helps deliver the child. Then, in her loneliness, she uncharacteristically invites her to live with her. Rose is astonished and afraid but eventually is convinced since, like the Grace and Nora of long ago, she really has no other choice. She asks Nora to name the baby and she does. She names the baby Grace after the Grace she never stopped loving. As Nora cares for Rose, so does Rose, with the help of David, a nurse, care for Nora in her final days
The story is a study in contrasts. Nora’s mother smelled of cleansers and Grace’s mother of perfume. Grace’s mother lived in opulent surroundings while Nora’s mom was uncomfortable in such opulence and was impoverished. Nora was well loved, her mom was attentive, while Grace’s parents hardly noticed her and sent her to boarding school. Nora’s mom was single and Grace’s parents might as well have been, since they hardly interacted. Nora’s mom sent her away to protect her while Rose’s mom sent her away because she was ashamed of her and wanted her to have an abortion. Grace couldn’t go home because her mom would never understand that she wanted an abortion, while Rose refused to have one. With Rose, Grace was providing a better home, as Grace’s family did for her. Nora seems unaware that Rose’s life is now, somewhat, mimicking hers. Grace’s family provided Nora with a better home and a chance to improve. Nora then provided Rose with a better home and a chance to improve and provide opportunity for her daughter Grace. Grace’s twin sister dies in the presence of Grace and Grace dies in the presence of her symbolic sister, Nora. Both were not really the cause, but both seemed complicit. Nora was jealous of Bernard, and later, she is jealous of the nurse who cares for her when he is attentive to Rose. The themes consistently circle each other.
The themes of secrets, along with unrequited live, unfulfilled expectations, and the quest for forgiveness, run throughout the novel. Bernard had secrets, Grace had secrets, the Rivers had secrets and Nora had secrets. The imagery, of the name Rose and the name Grace, recurs throughout the book. While Rose was Nora’s salvation and roses were happy memories for her, the rose itself, for Rose, was an unhappy reminder of her mother’s rejection. More contrasts continue to occur. Nora was treated terribly in the medical facility when she went to find out what was wrong with her, but now that she was dying, the doctor who came was kind and the system helped her with her pain and suffering. Nora believed that her pain was retribution for her sins, rather than being forgiven for them by divine grace. Finally, Nora begins to see that she is creating Rose in her own unhappy image, and confession becomes a theme. She decides to tell Rose all about her secrets before she dies, much as she would have told a priest. In the end, she extracts a promise from Rose, which is probably the only hopeful, possibly uplifting moment of the book!
The definitions of grace are varied. It can mean elegance of movement or as I read in one definition, the “unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings”. It can mean to “do honor or credit to (someone or something) by one's presence".
A rose can mean many things as well. It can mean virtue, love and beauty. It also has religious meanings and there are religious themes of sin and forgiveness throughout the book.
When the story ended, many parts remained either undeveloped or unresolved. For instance, did Mr. or Mrs. Rivers attempt to find the girls after they ran away? What happened after Nora left Bernard’s apartment? Why was no connection made of Nora’s part in Grace’s abortion and Grace’s birth? These are just some of the questions the reader will ponder when they turn the last page.