This novel explores the hazards for the protagonist/narrator, Geneva, in allowing romantic longings towards an unavailable person to carry her away from her better judgement. This all-too-common trap for human beings, and frequent theme in literature, comes to life here in yet another rendering with an uncommon twist at the end. The particulars in this story involve Geneva Aberdeen, a music history graduate, who works in an Indian catering kitchen and dates Mark Bergstrom, an intellectual nursery owner in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Although compatible in many ways, their lukewarm romance can’t seem to develop sufficient emotional depth for marriage. A re-emergence of a youthful crush from college, Dr. Nikolaus Gaetjens, causes Geneva’s previous obsessive passion for him to awaken. One major obstacle is that Nikolaus is married and has a child. Additionally, his feelings for Geneva are expressed with such vagueness and subtlety that she can’t be sure how much of what she infers is really just her wishful thinking. A parallel thread in the story is the examination of the love theme in the works of the Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev. A literary club, “Fortnight”, led by Mark and attended by Geneva, holds a series of lectures given by Mark which focus on Turgenev and the romantic complications of his characters which coincidently mirror that of Geneva, Mark, and Nikolaus. As Mark and Geneva’s relationship stalls out, a trip to Montreal for a music history conference brings Geneva and Nikolaus together in a climax and resolution of the main theme.
Unlike many modern novels rife with “F-bombs” and other earthly colloquialisms, Ms. Eschrich has chosen a quaint and formal narrative tone of writing that is more akin to the vocabulary and phrasing of Jane Austen, etc. I enjoyed the delicate beauty of this elevated and stylized language and the nuances it conveys. It also casts an appropriately introspective mood and suggests to me a psychological dislocation of the three main characters away from modern American popular culture and into the historical periods they have spent their lives studying and teaching. The following example is representative of the language employed:
“The discovery that I had not yet cast aside the unformed ardor of my youth was greeted with sadness as well as dismay, and I was astounded to perceive that the mere image of Nikolaus Gaetjens, no doubt ennobled in my mind over the years, was enough to elicit an emotional response not at all sensible.”
Much of the story takes place in the Indian food establishment where Geneva works as a prep cook, with the lives of the owners, the Joshi family, providing a contrast in values and lifestyle. Where Geneva has become preoccupied with romantic love and attaining an all but unattainable partner, the Joshi’s have come together through an arranged marriage with little or no romance and focus instead on running a business and raising children. Geneva occupies a psychological space of times and cultures outside her own late 20th century American milieu whereas the Joshi’s are firmly ensconced in their own culture and remain within its enclave, albeit as immigrants to America. The Joshi’s are practical and Geneva is an idealist. Between the two worlds is Dorothy, an Indian immigrant and Geneva’s best friend. Through Dorothy, the first allusion to the title’s metaphor “attar of roses” appears as a gift from her to Mrs. Joshi. At the end of the story the metaphor returns as a catalyst for Geneva’s epiphany.
Throughout the book an impressive amount of research is apparent ranging in subject matter from Turgenev, Indian cuisine and culture, botany, Renaissance music, and the colonial Potomac region. Some of my most educational reading is through fiction and this book serves amply with knowledge to that ends.
In full disclosure, the author is a personal friend of mine and although I have attempted to present her book on its own merits, my reading experience was influenced by knowing her and seeing some of the influences from her personal life filter into the story. I am also well acquainted with the D.C. metro area, having spent several years there, so both means of familiarity have enhanced my reading of “An Attar of Roses”.