Sonoma Rose – Jennifer Chiaverini

Received from Netgalley for review, thank you. I put in a request for the book based on the synopsis; this was a little outside of my usual well-worn paths, in a few ways. I’ve read little in this setting, time or place or cultural, and little enough in this broad genre, and I was attracted to the idea of a Prohibition-era vineyard. It’s an aspect of that time in history I’d never considered – the incredible tight spot family vineyards were placed in by that national mistake. I know I tend to be perhaps overly critical of romances, and it isn’t fair to the writer or publisher for me to take on a book that comes to me with that handicap (though holding them to the same standard as other books shouldn’t be unfair) … still, it sounded like a story I wanted to know. There were mixed, not altogether negative, results.

As the book opens, Rosa lives with her husband and four surviving children on a rye farm in southern California, and nothing is simple. Her husband, John, is not the man she loves, and he knows it, and makes her pay. The four children are only half the number Rosa has borne, the other four having died horribly young of an unexplainable wasting disease (which I diagnosed, wrongly – I was close though). She watches in despair as two of the survivors seem to be going the same way. The other two have a reason for not being ill which did not sit well with the way I expected this book to go (and I never was entirely comfortable with it). For some reason I went into this expecting a Christian romance of some degree. And while the text was refreshingly free of Romance Novel Sexese™ (not a throbbing body part in sight), and while Rosa at least is nominally Christian, the characters are not chaste, nor do they behave in a particularly Christian manner. At all. Ever, really.

Rosa’s husband is … well, I’m certainly not about to say she earned any of the treatment he gave her, but if she had entered into the marriage honestly and actually put her past behind her and applied herself (as teachers like to say), John might have had the foundation he needed to be a better man. Maybe not; his temper was formidable and maybe someday when she burned dinner he would have started hitting her. Regardless, as the book starts, she is terrified of him, and has good reason to be – and so I was surprised at the flashbacks that showed him controlling his anger and actually making the effort to be as good a husband as he could. Not, I want to be careful to state, that there is ever any valid excuse for a man to ever hit his wife – but it has to be said that Rosa treated him like a not-entirely-welcome house-guest because she was still in love with Lars, the man who fathered the child she gave birth to seven months after she married John … She lied to him, married him only to cover her pregnancy, and betrayed him, and he figured it all out; it doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out why John was a bit put out.  In other words, neither of them was innocent

I guess I’m not terribly fond of Rosa. Or Lars. Definitely not John, though I don’t blame him for his anger – he’s a horrible person when we meet him, and no amount of excuses will take that away.

A few of the minor characters were quite likeable and interesting – I would like the rest of the story of Elizabeth and the Triumph Ranch, for example, and in the Sonoma Valley there are some friends and neighbors I quite liked … Actually, I hate to say it, but I just realized that the histories of a great many of the minor characters here would make for a much more interesting reads than Rosa’s story, at least once catastrophe strikes and Rosa takes the children and flees to, eventually, Sonoma. All resolution to the first half of the book happened off-stage – from the halfway point it was a whole new tale with almost no connection to the rest.

It may be odd to say it, but the problem I have with Sonoma Rose is that it’s too much like a chunk out of reality: no one is blameless (except the children, and one of them is a brat while another is a little saint, both of which can be annoying extremes); events happen sometimes because of previous actions and sometimes just because they happen; people you want to like do things you can’t like or in ways you can’t like; and along the way a lot of loose ends are left flapping in the breeze.

I will credit this book for making me look deeper into Prohibition, because I had to do some digging in light of the predicament of the vineyards Rosa and Lars become involved with. Again, life-like, there are no answers; the story takes place pretty much smack in the middle of Prohibition (which was 1920-33, if you’re wondering), and leaves off with absolutely no indication of whether the wineries manage to survive. It made a difference in my experience of the book to know – once I figured it out – that there were years yet to endure of Prohibition rather than, as I’d hoped, the end being in sight. (It also took far too much work just to figure out the really pretty important detail of exactly what year it was (1926 or 27, I believe, was the figure I wound up with): “Let’s see, if that child was four when Prohibition began, and he’s – hm, how old? Two years younger than this one who is seven, and if it all started in 1920, then …” (

I disliked the choices made by Rosa as the second half developed (for one thing, as Lars himself points out, an alcoholic living at a winery can’t be a good idea), and I disliked the manner in which some of the choices were followed through; there was a level of carelessness about the main characters’ safety and minor characters’ feelings that didn’t fit with how I thought I was supposed to see Rosa and Lars. I just didn’t like them. It is life-like – but that does not make it a well-told or enjoyable story.

Sonoma Rose is listed as part of the Elm Creek Quilts series. I’m not entirely sure what this means, apart from an assumption that the heroines of all the books will be quilters; from what I see on Jennifer Chiaverini’s site there seem to be several present-day novels set around a shop with the same name as the series. How this book ties in, I have no idea. This concentration on a craft worried me a little, actually, because this sort of theme is so often so badly done – but the quilting, while not the star of the book, was an organic part of it, a tie between Rosa and her mother and then between Rosa and her children. The quilts are the natural symbols of home and warmth and comfort, but the concept is not beaten into the ground, happily … though puzzlingly, considering the series title. The book didn’t exactly make me want to rush out and buy fat quarters and batting, and I learned nothing about quilting in the course of the read (and there were no patterns, which is almost unusual nowadays) … but I definitely don’t need another hobby, and a lack of instruction is a very small price to pay for the lack of Cute. I don’t think there’s a syllable of Cute in here, even in the children’s scenes.

The writing was a little stiff, but not terribly so; I wasn’t enamored of the style, but it wasn’t actively off-putting. There was a distance kept between what was happening on the page and me, the reader, so that I never was moved by the sufferings of the family, nor gladdened by their successes. Rosa’s history is told in strategically placed flashbacks, but unfortunately there is no mechanism to alert the reader that what follows is or is not a flashback, so there were a few times when I’d come to a screeching halt as I tried to reconcile the appearance of a character I knew to be, in the book’s present, dead. Characterization felt a little shallow, and a lot inconsistent – some of those decisions I mentioned earlier seemed completely out of the blue, or somehow off. But, still and all, while I obviously found a lot to criticize, I didn’t hate it; there are stories in there somewhere, and I’d be willing to give another of Jennifer Chiaverini’s books another shot to see if it’s more successful. Several seem to take place during the Civil War, which helps.

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