Title: A Wreath of Roses
Author: Elizabeth Taylor
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
It all starts off innocently enough. Camilla is going to meet her friend, Liz, for their usual summer holiday. Every year, they stay for a few weeks with Frances, Liz’s childhood governess. Camilla and a handsome stranger sit in the same car on the train and seem to be headed to the same place. They don’t talk, but Camilla notices him and his movie-star good looks. She is intrigued. He thinks she is probably a school teacher. Half-right, she’s a school secretary. So far, I thought, this has the makings of a cute romantic comedy.
But the author is not of that genre. Elizabeth Taylor (not the famous actress) wrote novels with keen observations on loneliness, isolation, and the role of women in a rapidly changing post-war Britain. Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was her 4th novel. Taylor had an immense skill for characterization, the way that she deftly managed to draw out her characters in just a few words. A Wreath of Roses lives up to that reputation, although it is much darker in tone. Camilla and the handsome man have not experienced a meet-cute on the train. Their opinions of each other will not rapidly flutter from indifference to love.
And so it is that, while changing trains at a station, they witness someone commit suicide. This unites Camilla and the man, whom we learn is named Richard Elton, in conversation and leads to an odd sort of relationship during their holiday. Camilla seeks Richard out, hanging around the bar at his hotel and hoping that she will see him, but she doesn’t even particularly like him. She just wants him to write her letters to brighten her next term at the school where she is a secretary. She wants excitement in her dull life, and she gets it and then some. The perspective shifts at times and we see what Richard is thinking. He writes troubling diary entries. He lies about this past. The novel is going to a dark place, but the reader doesn’t learn the full extent of the darkness until the last fifteen pages.
A Wreath of Roses isn’t just about the relationship between Richard and Camilla. Instead, Taylor offers a stark examination of the way relationships between women can alter as they age. Liz is married and has recently had a baby, and her friendship with Camilla suffers as a result. While Liz’s life is just beginning, Frances is growing old and declining. She is a painter, but increasingly she cannot move her arm. Over the course of Liz’s and Camilla’s visit, Frances is coming to terms with the fact that she will not complete any more paintings. She realizes that she may have to rely on Liz’s help, just as Liz relied on her when she was a child.
Added to the fray is an admirer of Frances’s work, Morland Beddoes. A film director, he saw one of Frances’s paintings of Liz and immediately became a fan of her work. He and Frances exchanged letters for years and are meeting for the first time. Their conversation progresses shyly in front of Liz and Camilla (“the girls”), but in private they talk about painting and life in a frank way. Morland may or may not have feelings for Camilla, but all Camilla cares about is Richard and the excitement he exudes.
This is a very dark and subtle examination of characters, but maybe not the best Elizabeth Taylor work to begin with. I first read A Game of Hide and Seek and loved it; then, I immediately started reading the much-praised Angel. Tastes will vary (I personally couldn’t stand Angel), but even the most average Elizabeth Taylor novel is better than most. I will definitely be buying more of her books and adding them to my endless to-read lists.