The Forgotten Roses: A Novel

The Forgotten Roses: A Novel

By Deborah Doucette
Owl Canyon Press, 2014, 244 pages

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In 1940s Boston, Rose Gabrielli, a tough girl who “ran around with men” is sent to a women’s prison by her shamed father. She dies there, reportedly by her own hand. But her family suspects that she was murdered, because “she knew something” about the goings-on at the prison—“something terrible.”

In later years, Serena Deitzhoff, another tough young woman—and daughter of the prison’s one-time psychologist—mysteriously disappears after her mother’s suicide, generating rumors in her hometown.

And in the present day, in the same town, teenager Dana Griffin is immersed in her own set of troubles and heading quickly down a path of self destruction.

Bringing together these three stories is Dana’s mother, Rebecca Griffin, the protagonist of Deborah Docette’s briskly paced and thought-provoking début novel, The Forgotten Roses. A real estate agent, Rebecca is in charge of selling the home of Harold Deitzhoff, Serena’s father and the former prison psychologist. As she visits Deitzhoff, whose failing physical and mental state echoes the deteriorating condition of his house, Rebecca finds herself haunted by her family’s stories of Rose, a distant relative. And she begins to be troubled by questions: Did these stories have any basis in fact? What about the “respite therapy” that Deitzhoff was said to offer prison inmates, like Rose, at his home? Was it the beneficial intervention it was claimed to be or something far more sinister? Finally, why did Serena Deitzhoff disappear? And what was behind her mother’s suicide?

 As Rebecca seeks answers to these questions, she must deal with crises closer to home, many of them surrounding her difficult and rebellious daughter, Dana, who is skipping school and, worse, entangled with a possibly abusive boyfriend. And then there’s Rebecca’s ever more distant husband, Drew, who may be having an affair, and who sees Rebecca’s attempts to help Dana as suffocatingly overprotective.

Doucette’s portrayals of these familial tensions feel painfully authentic, and they show how no one can reveal uncomfortable truths about us quite like our loved ones can. In one especially harrowing scene, Dana criticizes Rebecca for her efforts to appease Drew and thereby hold the family together:     

      Rebecca springs off the couch, straight up like a rocket. “I’m trying to work things out. For all of us!”

“Don’t do it on my account,” Dana says coolly. “If I have to watch you apologize to him one more time, I’ll puke.”

“Apologize? I never do that. You’re just talking nonsense.”

“Oh yeah? Not with words maybe, but you’re always fucking acting like you can make everything just peachy. Like everything is just fine around here, when it’s not,” she says with bitter contempt. She bats her eyelashes, pushes her lips into a phony smile and continues in a sugary falsetto, mimicking Rebecca, killing her. “‘We’re just one big happy family.’ What bullshit!” Dana stretches her neck forward, her eyes black with hate. “You make me sick!”

At this point in the novel, we know that Rebecca was raised to be the opposite of Dana—in other words, a peacemaker more than a rebel. In her youth, Rebecca was “so inconspicuous that she was virtually invisible to those around her”—especially to her easily angered father. Yet she is no wilting flower. To the contrary, and perhaps as a result of her efforts to remain invisible, Rebecca is remarkably observant, thoughtful, and strategic in her personal and work life, and in her efforts to solve the mysteries surrounding Rose and the Deitzhoff family.

One of the great pleasures of The Forgotten Roses is the way in which it shows how mother and daughter learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Without revealing more, I’ll say that the unfolding conflict between them leaves us, finally, with a sense of hopefulness. (One reason for Doucette’s especially perceptive writing about challenging family dynamics may be the personal experiences and case studies that informed her nonfiction book Raising Our Children’s Children: Room in the Heart.)

In the end, Rebecca answers many, but not all, of her questions about Rose and the Deitzhoff family, and the extent to which matters are resolved (and unresolved) feels true. All in all, The Forgotten Roses makes for a gratifying read, both for the storytelling and for the light that it sheds on family dynamics and on what it means to be a “good” versus “bad” girl. In some situations, the book suggests, good or bad behavior may be a survival tactic more than a character-driven habit or choice. In these cases, the challenge is to not be undone by this behavior but, instead, to use its consequences to the best advantage.

In an interview about the book with writer Linda Pendleton, Doucette commented:

I wanted a protagonist that was conflicted. Someone I could relate to. Someone who had hidden and/or buried strengths. All I can say is Rebecca was born out of those desires. Once she came to life, Rebecca [led] me to explore some of the broader issues that are woven through the story: what it means to be true to yourself, why women make the wrong choices – particularly in men, how society defines who is a “bad” girl and who is a “good” girl. I also wanted to write about the way in which our past creates blueprints for our future.

 Doucette definitely achieved these goals.

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
▪ Mysteries
▪ Stories of family conflicts and relationships, especially between mothers and daughters
▪ The works of Alice Hoffman
▪ Evocative descriptions of nature, landscapes, and gardens