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[202] The Rose Variations – Marisha Chamberlain

rosevariations“And what was love? Lust-driven and hypnotic, a way to stay busy, nothing more, even if the lovers never let themselves realize, even if they contrived to extend their delusion over a lifetime.” [106]

Having recently read Of Human Bondage certainly puts me into an advantage to appreciate The Rose Variations, which follows a young girl’s vicissitudes, romantic and musical, over eight years as Rose MacGregor takes a temporary professorship at a Midwestern college in 1975. What appears to be struggle of gender politics and glass ceiling in an all-male academic department at first unfolds an intricate portrait of a human being. Convinced that an exciting career as a composer lies ahead, Rose steers clear of any interpersonal interaction, let alone relationship, matrimony and motherhood, in order to achieve the goal.

Hadn’t she lined up her past mistakes to remind herself to be led of such consequences, to fortify herself against unfocused eyes and colliding bodies?” [28]

What strikes me the most is how much she strives for independence. I cannot help wonder what in her young life has made her not trust happiness, perhaps her parents’ unhappy marriage. The novel continues to explore this perplexing question of happiness in terms of the diversity of relationships. As she struggles with loneliness, love, and ambition, and becomes entangled inevitably in relationships with friends, colleagues, and students, whether Rose likes it or not, she is involved in awkward affairs. On the account of these affairs, Chamberlain, with a writing style so slippery, ventures into sexual politics that best plays out in a setting as genteel as academia and music. We quickly perceive that nobody, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, can escape the unrelenting sexual politics that plays a pivotal role in the career path. Chamberlain has coyly steered readers back to the issue of social normality to which everyone is called to assimilate.

Rose’s gay colleague Alan has to Marry Frances, the secretary of music department, to boost his suitability for tenure because his “lack of family life” has been a big con. The revered conductor of Seattle Symphony, Stephen Orrick, who is to conduct the premiere of Rose’s symphony, turns out to be a trick trying to take advantage of her, knowing her tenure application is laced with his name. The image of Orrick’s artistic success, pairing with his picture-perfect family life becomes a sarcastic irony to this notion of normality. Consider the poetic and euphemistic prose Chamberlain employs, remotely accusative and suggestive:

The savvy conductor ‘played’ the volunteers as a sort of second orchestra, and what better way to string them along, the bevy of them, than to offer at least the possibility of going to bed with him? Stephen had no paid staff . . . Such women did not turn over their time—what might otherwise be full-time paid work—for the purely altruistic love of music. They did it at least partly for the life around the music: the gossip, the flirtations with artists, the intrigues. [244]

That humans should need each other struck Rose at that moment as a grievous condition, a ruinous necessity . . . and Rose, too, clung at the edges, warming herself at the fires of other people’s lives. [239]

Then there is the eclectic Lila, the lesbian cellist who, after being rejected by Rose, becomes her mentor. Lila, although a renowned musician, has withdrawn to a country farm where she can be free from society’s critical eyes. Her sexuality has been a stigma; her beard and rancid body odor like that of a man render her self-conscious, although the “sound eclipsed the sight of her, as though the ear could for once overthrow the almighty eye.”

Chamberlain’s prose affords subtlety and insight, musing on Rose’s desire for solitude and her unawareness that the interpersonal forces have molded her, in the same way she plans and composes her symphony. The novel captures the complexity of life lived over a period over which one tries to achieve balance between love and work. Although not all her variations are arresting, but that some of these variations aren’t perfect, or even stagnant, paint Rose MacGregor to be someone very believable, who has learned from her misguided choices and grown to be in touch with her emotion.

She’d stumbled into a movement that was darkly, vigorously sad, a dance in which melody, at first sprightly and full of itself, got lost in rhythm, so that rhythm alone existed for a time, as day follows day and breath follows breath through good fortune and bad, as the body, eating, sleeping and breathing, leads the bewildered soul onward: Rose in all her variations. Not quite coherently, she described this to Victor. [293]

I think I’m lost in my rhythm somehow as well.
341 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

One Response

  1. I’m not sure what to think about this book, except that I don’t think I’ve read a book anywhere near like this one. Not a good “beach book” for sure!

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