Monday, February 27, 2012
Book Review: SONOMA ROSE by Jennifer Chiaverini
The novel begins with Rosa Diaz Barclay trapped in a loveless and increasingly volatile marriage to John, desperate at having lost four of her 8 children to a mysterious wasting disease that attacked them right after they were weaned. Two of her four remaining children suffer from the same affliction, although the other two, including her eldest, are completely healthy. Having been abandoned by her family, her only support comes from her childhood sweetheart, Lars Jorgensen, and a new arrival in Arboles Valley, Elizabeth Nelson. When Elizabeth witnesses one of John’s jealous rages, the stage is set for Rosa to run. The family’s attempt to free themselves both from the tyranny of an abusive spouse and the nightmare of a disease that the local doctors cannot understand comprise the main action of the novel, and I was caught up in Rosa’s world from the very beginning.
This novel serves up a really interesting piece of historical fiction, and throws in a offbeat love story for good measure. Rosa and her family find themselves among the desperate northern California vineyard owners who are trying to hold onto their land and their heritage as Prohibition slowly destroys their way of life. I had never really thought about the unintended effects of Prohibition on law abiding citizens – and how desperation might have forced vineyard owners into relationships with criminals, just to keep their heads above water. The book emphasizes the ambiguity of the time by contrasting the slimy Prohibition agent, Dwight Crowell, with the protective bootlegger, Mr. Lucerno.
It was also fascinating to think about how much medicine has changed our lives in less than 100 years. In the time before genetic testing and antibiotics, illness must have seemed so much more mysterious and ominous than it does to us now. Rosa’s attempts to deal with her children’s condition were so heartbreaking that any mother reading could easily put herself in Rosa’s place.
While Sonoma Rose was identified as part of the Elm Creek Quilt series, quilts and quilt-making are only tangential to the storyline. From what I’ve read, this may make Sonoma Rose an unusual part of the collection, but for me it meant there was no problem understanding what was going. It’s possible that the heirloom quilts that Elizabeth gives Rosa are detailed in a previous book, but not knowing that didn’t detract in any way from my enjoyment of the book.
I’ve been reading a lot of translated fiction and classic fiction lately, and Sonoma Rose was a nice, light break. Not being a quilter, I’m not sure if I’d go back and read the rest of the series. But I did enjoy this novel very much, and recommend it to those interested in 20th century historical fiction, regardless of whether they are quilters or not. This book counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge 2012 – it’s about time I got something done, challenge-wise, to keep February from being a complete bust! Thanks to everyone at Historical Tapestry for hosting!
I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.