Kat Howard's Roses and Rot is about art and magic and love, and fairy tales. I keep tripping over the fairy tales.
Imogen is a writer, starting a year at an elite artists' retreat. Her sister Marin, a ballet dancer, is there, too, and they're hoping to reconnect after years of distance. The retreat, Melete, is idyllic, and they have mentors and housing and delicious food, and they make friends and meet charming men and are surrounded by geniuses and work on their art.
You can see that there's a dark side coming, right? Not really so dark, actually; it turns out Melete is run by the fae; it's a doorway to Faery, and the presence of artists feeds the fae. But they need more than that; once ever seven years, a tithe is chosen, a person to live in Faery for the next seven years. Your emotions sustain the fae while you're there, and when you come back you are guaranteed genius and success. They choose the most brilliant artist for this coveted position.
So the big theme this book seems to wrestle with is what an artist will do for their art. Spending seven years in Faery is not all sunshine and rose petals--the fae feed on human emotions, and so you're basically gonna be on an emotional rollercoaster the whole time you're there, but most of the characters think it's worth it for what you get in return--guaranteed greatness, guaranteed success. You will become a legend in your field.
I have a lot of thoughts on this, some of which are simply raised by the book and some of which are critical of its treatment. It would be interesting to discuss this book next to The Family Fang, which is another novel in which the characters wrestle with the importance of art when it interferes with family relationships. This book is very different from that one (which I really enjoyed), but it takes on some of the same questions from a completely different angle.
Imogen and Marin have an extremely abusive mother, and her presence in their lives has bound them as allies, torn them apart with lies, and informed each of their relationships with their art in a different way. When they're faced with the question of what they would give up for their art and whether competition between them will cause a rift, you watch the practicalities of that conflict play out, which is very interesting.
I do think that there's a flaw in the idea of art here, which the book doesn't ignore but doesn't really resolve--the idea of talent and success as black-and-white, all-or-nothing concepts. When you have forty of the world's most talented artists and only one will be chosen, it doesn't make sense to think of the rest as failures. When you have a magic spell guaranteeing you success (through brilliance; that's part of the deal, but the success is the main part), does that mean you're really "better" than anyone else? It seems like the ultimate desire for a lottery ticket, or to have things handed to you on a silver platter; I understand the desire to make this tough path easier, but the notion that there is any value at all in what the fae are offering is kind of questionable to me, and I feel like the nod in the direction of that doubt isn't as clear as I'd want it to be.
Some other great things about this book: Imogen has a relationship that no one at any point mistakes for a "true love always" relationship, but that is treated as important and meaningful anyway. You never see this--sometimes you'll get a book where what looks like TLA ends up not working out, but you rarely get one where two people like each other and want each other and so date, knowing they're not in love, but are still expected to treat each other respectfully, and still value each other. It was something I didn't realize I'd missed till I got it.
Melete sounds amazing. The buildings, the art, the characters; it's like the ultimate college experience, only you're old enough to appreciate it.
Some things that didn't strike me right: I'm pretty sure the author's not from New Hampshire. Mid-October is not early fall in central New Hampshire. A foot of snow is not something residents freak out about. A minor issue, but I found it amusing.
There is a risk, when writing about brilliant writers, because you will probably at some point have to show me their writing. The author made the wise choice to show any of the poetry that some of the secondary characters wrote, but she did have to include some of the fairy tale-like stories that Imogen wrote, and this was a struggle for me.
See, the stories in fairy tales are deep and dark and rich and creepy. But the telling of fairy tales is blunt and unadorned, without characterization or subtlety. No one has depths; characters are types. There is no internal life to a character in a fairy tale, and the language has a very standard, practical, straightforward style. So while the metaphors between the creepy Grimm brothers lives of Imogen's characters and the real-world experiences of the sisters worked just fine, there is no way that you can convince me that this is writing that's supposed to be transcendent. I think Margo Lanagan is probably the go-to character for a fairy tale-style story that also packs an enormous emotional wallop; reading Imogen's excerpts, the metaphors are masking the dark reality, not enhancing it.
So what's the verdict? Well, I enjoyed reading it, and it moved me along through the story. And there were some interesting issues that it made me think about from very interesting angles. I feel like it didn't meet me squarely on those issues, though; I was less in dialog with the book than prompted to do the thinking on my own. Definitely a good read, but there was some missed potential there for it to be a great one.