Book Review of ‘Black Rose’, Second in the in the Garden Trilogy by Nora Roberts

If anyone can write a trilogy, it’s Nora Roberts. In each novel, she not only succinctly summarizes the first and/or second installments, but she rewards the reader with continuing tidbits and “inside jokes” from the previous novel, making one feel a part of the family of the novel, as well as close to Nora herself. However, each story can stand on its own, and the trilogies may be read backwards with great enjoyment.

In Black Rose, the second in the In the Garden trilogy, (following Blue Dahlia) Roberts continues the story of three women meeting at pivotal points in their lives. Of course, romance plays a large part in these books, but Roberts also weaves in the unexpected paranormal phenomenon, the central idea that ties together the trilogy. In Blue Dahlia Stella Rothchild and her two sons come to Memphis, Tennessee, to manage Roz Harper’s business, In the Garden. Roz gives Stella and her boys a new home, her ancestral estate called Harper House, and acquaints Stella with her landscapist Logan Kitridge, who eventually fall in love. Hayley Ashby, a cousin of Roz’s on her late husband’s side, also comes to live at Harper House, working in the nursery and eventually gives birth in the first novel to her daughter, Lily. Blue Dahlia is spiked with incidents from the house ghost, Amelia, who shows up as a fairly benign phantasm, singing to the children, but becomes disturbed when Stella and Logan begin to fall in love. At the end of Blue Dahlia nothing is resolved with Amelia, and the women decide to hire a genealogist, Dr. Mitchell Carnegie, to research Amelia’s history in the Harper family, so that they can lay her to rest.

Black Rose is Roz’s story, and certainly more action-packed than the first installment. Roz is a late forty-something widow who raised three sons on her own (one, Harper Ashby, lives at Harper House) and is building her business, In the Garden, a nursery, with the help of her new manager, Stella. Roz comes from an old Memphian family, but is not one to put on airs, and finds the society set mostly catty and self-important, although she will stoop to their level if needs be. She was recently married and divorced from Bryce Clerk, whom she found cheating on her at one of her own parties. Here the reader can see the sometimes soap opera drama of romance novels, although Roberts writes so well, and creates such rounded characters, that high drama seems almost never misplaced. Roz is pictured as a strong Southern woman, one who has made her own choices and is happy with them. She begins a romance with Mitch, the genealogist working on the problem of identifying Amelia, and so the action begins.

Amelia immediately takes a dislike to Roz and Mitch’s romance, writing “men lie!” in steam across the bathroom mirror (her favorite form of communication) and generally attempting to scare Roz from intensifying her relationship with Mitch. The haunted aspect of the house, and novel, are played out well by Roberts, although not quite as scarily as in some of her novels that use magic, such as the Three Sisters trilogy. It will give the reader a good shiver or two though, contemplating Amelia’s fate. How the past affects the present is a theme with Roberts, who has written many trilogies and incorporated ancestors into many novels. From her website, www.noraroberts.com, she says: “I’m fascinated by the dynamics of family, the shared history and the way each individual grows.” Roberts portrays both the good and the bad sides of families; this is no romance novel where everyone is perfect, Roz having entered and ended a loveless marriage, and Mitch being a recovering alcoholic. Conflicts with Bryce, Roz’s ex-husband, and her cousin Clarise are entertaining diversions from the main story, and lighten the darkness of Amelia’s past. The reader is easily able to identify with characters who (albeit good-looking as a group) have definite flaws.

Roberts continues Logan and Stella’s story by incorporating their wedding into Black Rose, and lays ground for the final book, Red Lily, whose principal characters will be Hayley and Harper. The ghost urges all of the characters to band together for the common purpose of identifying Amelia in the Harper family history, and during her bouts of rage, gives them a common obstacle. As Roz and Mitch grow closer, and he comes closer to identifying her, Amelia’s occurrences become more and more violent, attempting to kill Roz and later her ex-husband. Again, Amelia’s truth is not resolved, although more facts are known, to be discovered and (hopefully) put to rest in the last installment. Of course, as with all romance novels, Roz and Mitch end up happily committed to one another, a perk of the genre that is non-existent in real life.

Overall, Black Rose is a great middle novel, action-packed and leaving hanging questions at the end, designed to give the reader a craving for that last novel, much like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Black Rose is perfect beach reading, only printed in paperback and with enough oomph to be a page-turner, but without any summer-dulling jargon. The reader finishes the novel semi-satisfied at best, and eager for December 2005, when Red Lily will be published.

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