Are there any historical fiction readers out there who have not read the insanely popular Lilac Girls yet? Hello!
Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel was published in 2016 – and like all book fledglings was sent out into the world with high hopes. Early reviews were rather mixed, but it hit the NY Times bestseller list immediately, a phenomenon for a debut novel. It has become one of those rare books in publishing that has an enormous wingspan, remaining on the bestseller lists for years.
One cannot even imagine the pressure on Kelly’s shoulders to produce her second novel, Lost Roses, released last month by Ballantine Books. A prequel to Lilac Girls, many of her readers will have high expectations. If she was smart, she would stick to her winning formula: base the story on real-life women facing challenges during historical events; transport readers into their lives and times through first-person narratives that are impeccably researched; offer page turning-prose that keeps you up into the wee hours; and finally, develop characters that we can empathize and care about. A very tall order, indeed.
Again, the story features a tryptic of women struggling on the home front during a world war. Lilac Girls introduced us to Caroline Ferriday in the 1940’s WWII. Lost Roses begins a generation earlier in pre-WWI and features Caroline’s mother Eliza Ferriday, an American socialite and philanthropist, her friend Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian aristocrat, and Varinka Kozlov, a Russian peasant.
The story spans pre-WWI Paris, New York, and St. Petersburg and continues through “the war to end all wars,” the Bolshevik revolution (Red Russians), the assassination of the Tsar and his family, and the exodus of aristocrats (White Russians) from their native land. Much has been written about this era. It was the largest global war in European history mobilizing millions of soldiers and multiple countries. Approximately 9 million military and 7 million civilians perished in the conflict. History books record every battle in vivid detail. Lost Roses focuses on the war’s effect on three indomitable women who fight their own battles for their families and themselves while the menfolk are away at war.
Inspired by actual people and events, Kelly has taken personalities and historical events and created a clever and compelling story. Each of the three characters: Eliza, Sofya, and Varinka take their turn by chapters telling their portion as the narrative unfolds. I was concerned that this first-person structure with multiple points of view would be disjointed—three voices who are often not together revealing the conflicts and events independent from each other. It is a format that is challenging, yet I found it interesting and engaging.
Kelly’s writing style is at times very reminiscent of two classic historical fiction authors that I admire: Rosamunde Pilcher and Colleen McCullough. Her research on Russian history and the Ferriday family was impressive and added greatly to the ambiance and effectiveness of the plot.
As a second novel, Lost Roses is a sparkling success. Many of her faithful readers will find the sweeping storyline and historical backdrop mesmerizing. Besides some uneven pacing, my one concern was for the characters. Caring about over-privileged Russian aristocrats and tony Americans on both sides of the pond is a daunting task that few could overcome—just think Dr. Zhivago meets The Age of Innocence. I never warmed to any of them, nor did I want to give them a hug—the sure-fire test of a winning story. More vodka while reading could be your solution to my lament.
4 out of 5 Stars
Lost Roses: A Novel, by Martha Hall Kelly
Ballantine Books (2019)
Hardcover, eBook and audiobook (448) pages
Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Cover image courtesy of Ballantine Books © 2019; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2019, Austenprose.com