Book review: Roses by Leila Meacham

Seventy-five years after Gone with the Wind swept readers off their feet comes another powerful Deep South saga with a heroine well armed to give Scarlett O’Hara a run for her money.

Thursday, 20th January 2011, 6:00 am

Leila Meacham’s epic Roses follows the fortunes of three influential Texan families over three generations and 100 years of their intertwined history.

With shades of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and all those other sprawling, panoramic blockbusters, Roses pits the Tolivers, descended way back from the English House of Lancaster, against the Warwicks, whose ancestry lies in the House of York.

Throw in the DuMont family who have connections to the French royals and the scene is set for a sensational triangular tale of thwarted love, seduction, scandal, treachery and tragedy.

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Written by a 69-year-old retired English teacher from Texas, Roses is Leila Meacham’s debut novel and was one of the surprise runaway best-sellers in the US last year.

Her sizzling story spans the 20th century and features feisty heroines, dashing heroes, social struggle, personal sacrifice, war and, of course, those steamy cotton fields where all the money is made.

Despite their ancient rivalries, the Tolivers and Warwicks have been friends for generations. Any disagreements are settled by a tradition of offering a red rose to apologise and a white rose to symbolise forgiveness.

Now in her eighties and dying from cancer, Mary Toliver DuMont looks back over her life and makes final changes to her will that will rock the foundations of the three close-knit families.

Born at the turn of the 20th Century, Mary Toliver was a headstrong 16-year-old when she inherited her father’s cotton plantation, Somerset.

The legacy was both a blessing and a curse.

By becoming the new mistress of Somerset, Mary betrayed her mother and brother and it seemed that the Toliver dynasty would never recover.

Mary’s loyalty and love was first and foremost for the family land and nothing – and no-one – would make her give it up, not even her passion for timber baron Percy Warwick, a dashing and honourable man who did not quite meet the expected social mark.

When Mary declined Percy’s proposal, it was a shattering choice that set in train generations of heartbreak.

Meacham’s enthralling story is played out against a backdrop of the major events of the 20th century – the First World War, The Depression and irrevocable change in the farming industry.

Romantic, dramatic, compelling and unashamedly big, Roses is top quality escapism.

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)