Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here at Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time! I include roundups from participating bloggers in my post every week.
I decided to reach way back through the years for this edition of Retro Friday. I have several aunts who are readers. And they have always looked after me when it comes to sending books they think I'd like my way. Particularly during my formative reading years. To this day, many of the books nearest and dearest to my heart came to me in the mail from one of my aunts. When I was twelve or so, my Aunt Becky sent me a lesser known book (which I had never heard of) by a very well known author (which I had). The book was Rose in Bloom and it was actually the first book I ever read by Louisa May Alcott. It is also actually a sequel to her earlier book Eight Cousins. I didn't know this at the time, though, and so I cracked it open completely unaware of what to expect in the way of the writing, the style, or the characters. I've since gone back and read Eight Cousins, but, perhaps simply because I read it first, or perhaps because it feels like a slightly more mature and focused character-driven story, Rose in Bloom has always been my favorite. I've read it many times, though I realized it's been quite a few years since I picked it up last. But Rose's coming of age story, her love for her family, and the important dilemmas she faces never fail to make me feel nostalgic and want to return to spend more time with her.
Rose Campbell has been traveling abroad with her Uncle Alec and her maid, friend, and companion Phebe for the last several years. Now she has come of age, come into her inheritance, and come home to Aunt Hill--the family stronghold--to reacquaint herself with her seven male cousins as well as her family's expectations that she settle down and marry one of them at once. But Rose has grown up quite a bit in the intervening years and is not at all sure she's ready for matrimony. Surprising the whole clan by insisting upon establishing herself as an independent woman before choosing a husband, she holds their uneasiness and disapproval at bay and takes her own time evaluating her options and settling on a course of action. Meanwhile, the various aunts are in various states of uproar and decline. Her former maid and now friend Phebe is caught uncomfortably between two worlds as she is forced to determine what she will do with her life now that Rose has no official need of her and she has little money of her own. And then there are the boys. The seven boys who've unexpectedly grown into men and who are each so very different and each have their own unique relationship with their cousin Rose. Their wildly different personalities, habits, and desires at times clash with their parents' wishes and their choices, along with Rose's, dramatically affect every member of the Campbell family over the course of the novel.
I'm always amazed at how few people I know have actually read (or even heard of) this book. I realize it will always be overshadowed by Little Women, but Rose in Bloom is a perfectly lovely, sweet read about a kind and thoughtful and forward-thinking young woman and how she comes of age and learns several important things about herself and the world around her and is a force for good in binding the wayward members of her family together. The opening passage, to give you a feel for what's in store:
Three young men stood together on a wharf one bright October day awaiting the arrival of an ocean steamer with an impatience which found a vent in lively skirmishes with a small lad, who pervaded the premises like a will-o'-the-wisp and afforded much amusement to the other groups assembled there.
"They are the Campbells, waiting for their cousin, who has been abroad several years with her uncle, the doctor," whispered one lady to another as the handsomest of the young men touched his hat to her as he passed, lugging the boy, whom he had just rescued from a little expedition down among the piles.
"Which is that?" asked the stranger.
"Prince Charlie, as he's called--a fine fellow, the most promising of the seven, but a little fast, people say," answered the first speaker with a shake of the head.
"Are the others his brothers?"
'No, cousins. The elder is Archie, a most exemplary young man. He has just gone into business with the merchant uncle and bids fair to be an honor to his family. The other, with the eyeglasses and no gloves, is Mac, the odd one, just out of college."
"And the boy?"
"Oh, he is Jamie, the youngest brother of Archibald, and the pet of the whole family. Mercy on us--he'll be in if they don't hold on to him!"
I do love those boys. Upstanding Archie, quiet Mac, princely Charlie, the beanpole brothers Will and Geordie, dandy Steve, and impish Jamie. When I first read it, this book reminded me quite a bit of Anne of Green Gables and, though overall a less complicated and somewhat rosier tale, it is not without its heart-wrenching moments and instances of tragedy. I appreciated the way Alcott addressed the many vices and challenges young men and women in their early twenties face and it never fails to surprise me how those hurdles have not changed so very much since this book was first published in 1876. It's interesting to me that it is so often billed as a children's book, as the themes it explores seem much older to me. Particularly as Rose does, in the end, come to an informed (if painful and complicated) decision as to where her heart lies. But then I read it first when I was twelve, and again every couple of years after that, and gained something new every time I did. How sad it must be to never re-read good books and never experience that unforgettable moment of realization that both you and the book have brought more to the table than was there the last time you met. Recommended, unsurprisingly, for fans of Alcott, Montgomery, and Eva Ibbotson.