Roses of Yesterday … and the next best thing
The most enduring romantic loves may be those which are not returned, for rejected lovers live in hope that one day their remembrance will be rewarded. They may marry elsewhere, or seek forgetfulness in the charms of many, but their hearts, once given, may be given for good. Two interwoven stories, set mainly in 1912-19 and 1962-69, trace the tortured love of James for Rosalind, and Jim for Ros. More
In Jim's favourite fantasy he asks Ros if she had ever thought of him … perhaps at the beginning of a new year or the end of an old one, perhaps even, on average, once a month. "No," she replies,smiling, "I thought of you every day."
This novel (187,000 words) consists of two stories which run concurrently. The dominant - accounting for two thirds of the text - is set mainly in the period 1912-19 while most of the subordinate action – like the outer arc of a rainbow, a reflection of the dominant – occurs in the years 1962-69. The major sequence is set mainly in London and on the Western Front, the minor in Dundee (unnamed) and Glasgow.
The title references lines from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:
Each morn a thousand roses brings, you say:
Yes, but where leaves the rose of yesterday?
The main character in each of the stories is affected by the loss of a first love, and the extension to the title may be understood in two ways:
The NEXT best thing – being the next in a sequence of good things (the major strand).
The NEXT BEST thing – being the second, apparently inferior alternative (minor strand).
The book attempts to carry two main themes, and these cross both stories:
1. Affections are capable of surviving many years of separation, but a lost love may be mourned only in secret.
2. The life of a rose blossom is short – but against what yardstick, and what has the length of its life to do with its perfection? We lay too much store by longevity, and too little by the quality of life.
The stories are told by a narrator who, in a brief prologue, indicates his sources, and confesses to being himself – albeit under an assumed name - one of the minor participants. The four main characters are introduced in the short Part 1 (Budding): James soon after his birth in 1893, Rosalind (born 1894) in early childhood, Jim and Ros (born 1944 and 1945 respectively) in childhood.
In Part 2 (Blooming) James falls in love with Rosalind, and Jim with Ros. Although James appears to make some progress, the social gap between himself and Rosalind is so wide that his chances are always slim and appear to be ended by his apparently unpatriotic response to the outbreak of war in 1914. The social division between Jim and Ros is narrower, but still it creates a tension between them.
Part 3 (Blowing) contains an account of the turbulent war experience of the principal characters in the main story, and follows the changes in their lives. Interwoven with this history is Jim's experience as a social worker living in the derelict Gorbals district of Glasgow.
In Part 4 (Browning), James and Jim meet Rosalind and Ros again after many years of separation, and reconsider the choices they have made.
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