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Lost Roses


Lost Roses

Following her breakout bestseller, LILAC GIRLS, author Martha Hall Kelly returns with a prequel set a generation before the events of her debut novel and World War II. Like her previous book, LOST ROSES is inspired by true events and introduces readers to a younger version of Caroline Ferriday’s mother, Eliza, another indomitable Woolsey woman, as well as two new characters from St. Petersburg, Russia. Combined, these three women reveal an under-discussed but fascinating portion of Europe’s history, from the Bolshevik uprising to the start of World War I and so much more.

LOST ROSES kicks off in 1914 at the Woolseys’ beloved Gin Lane home, where Eliza, a young, happily married mother, is preparing to send off her Russian friends, the Streshnayvas, at a lavish party thrown by her mother. Sofya Streshnayva, Eliza’s dearest friend, is a cousin of the Romanovs, Russia’s royal family (yes, those Romanovs), and her husband, Afon, is a soldier in the Russian army; the two are also expecting their first child. With her 11-year-old daughter, Caroline, and scores of family and friends in attendance, Eliza observes the party and makes small talk, though it is clear that the long journey to Russia is on her mind. Readers of LILAC GIRLS will immediately recognize Eliza’s sense of global awareness --- she is tremendously excited to travel to St. Petersburg with Sofya, yet she is fully aware of the unhappiness of its people and lavish spending of its tsar. Still, she craves adventure and new settings, and is thrilled to be able to spend more time with her friend.

Of course, no party is complete without a surprise, and the Streshnayvas are certainly in for a shock when Sofya goes into labor prematurely and delivers a beautiful baby boy they name Maxwell. After a brief respite in America, the Streshnayvas and Eliza set off for St. Petersburg, where Hall shifts the perspective to Sofya’s eyes. Sofya and her younger sister, Luba, are still mourning the loss of their mother, but they share a closeness that makes their family feel whole. Together they laugh at their stepmother Agnessa’s complaints and criticisms, show Eliza the glamourous and historical parts of St. Petersburg, and try to remain true to their values, even while straddling the difficult line between the lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed and the reality of the peasants dying of starvation and revolution-fueled violence in their beloved city. As Sofya holds her infant son, she often marvels at his luck for being born to her and her family. She is fully aware that it is only timing that has spared him from being born destitute and destined for a life of hopelessness.

"Once again, Hall takes her readers on a breathless, heartfelt journey through one of the greatest conflicts in history, exposing the truths of the past through the eyes of its unsung women."

Through Eliza and Sofya’s eyes, Hall reveals a Russia full of tension and discontent. The wealthy are constantly being robbed and bullied, but it is the poor who are truly at risk of dying out. With violence becoming the norm, several of Russia’s most prominent families are considering fleeing to the countryside, though the tsar and his tsarina continue to act as though nothing is wrong. Unsurprisingly, their flamboyant demonstrations of wealth and luxury add a whole new layer of complexity to the mix, and poor Eliza falls victim to a mugging before heading back to America to reunite with her husband, Henry, and young Caroline. Though their time together in Russia was a bit chaotic, Eliza and Sofya remain the dearest of friends and vow to write to one another every single day they are apart.

As Eliza and Sofya settle back into their respective homes (tragedies, joys and all), Hall introduces another new character: 16-year-old Varinka, a peasant girl living just outside of St. Petersburg with her ailing mother, a fortune teller. In Hall’s deft hands, Varinka becomes the real voice of the uprisings we have already witnessed through Eliza and Sofya. We watch as she is bullied and threatened by Russian government workers and stripped of everything she holds dear, simply for being born to the wrong family (or rather, the wrong wallet). But poverty is not all Varinka is facing: she is also tormented by Taras, a young man who was once employed by her father, but now lives in a shed behind Varinka and her mother’s house. Taras has a dark, ominous energy, and though it is clear that he and Varinka share a complicated history, Hall reveals their story slowly and carefully. What is immediately obvious, though, is that Taras is trouble, and Varinka is torn between wanting to please him and wanting to stand up for herself and her mother.

These three storylines converge seamlessly when the uprisings in St. Petersburg reach an all-time high, and Sofya and her family set off for their country estate. While she is there, she continues to write letters to her American friend, Eliza, as she, her son Maxwell, her sister Luba, her stepmother Agnessa, and her father settle into their new normal. Varinka soon joins their household as hired help in the kitchen, but when toddler Maxwell takes a liking to her, she becomes his caretaker. Desperately lonely and terrified of returning home to Taras, Varinka becomes obsessed with Maxwell, even as she has trouble separating the Streshnayvas’ kindness from the clear divide in their socioeconomic classes. With tensions growing and Taras breathing down her neck, Varinka makes a choice that puts the Streshnayvas and herself in grave danger. When communication from Sofya ceases, Eliza --- who has been following the news from afar as more and more Russian elite (“White Russians”) begin to travel to America for safety --- vows to find her friend and make sure that she and her family are safe.

Once again, Hall takes her readers on a breathless, heartfelt journey through one of the greatest conflicts in history, exposing the truths of the past through the eyes of its unsung women. Keen readers will note that Hall follows a similar formula with LOST ROSES as she did with LILAC GIRLS: one fierce main character, a woman living through the historic event, and another character on the other side of the conflict. Her style, while perhaps a bit formulaic at first glance, feels fresh and new in her tender, steady hands. Her pacing is carefully plotted --- at no point will you have trouble keeping each storyline straight, even with the abundance of Russian names and phrases to learn --- and her ability to end each chapter on an exciting but not at all unrealistic cliffhanger is unparalleled. I won’t give any spoilers, but I can confirm that the conclusion is deeply, exhilaratingly satisfying, which is yet another area where Hall shines.

It is difficult to put my finger on what exactly makes Hall’s writing so uniquely beautiful when she has so many talents, but in the end, I think it is her treatment of female characters. The women she writes are never perfect, nor are they ever wholly evil. Instead they are as complex as the women you know off the page, and every bit as relatable. Although Hall writes about real women, she does not simply tick off the facts; she fleshes out every complicated decision and every relationship as if they are real. Simply put, Hall loves her female characters, and although she never shies away from the realities of war --- violence, murder and heartbreak --- the pains enacted upon her female characters always serve a purpose and are never gratuitous or voyeuristic. Hall is a masterful author, and I am so thrilled that she has continued to share the Woolsey women’s stories in LOST ROSES.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 12, 2019

Lost Roses
by Martha Hall Kelly