One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo Putney
Fawcett/Ballantine, $10.00, PG-13, ISBN 0-449-00017-6
Mary Jo Putney has dealt with serious social and personal problems in her previous books: alcoholism, epilepsy, child sexual abuse, incest. In One Perfect Rose, she takes on the really big one -- death. And she has crafted a compelling book with a message for us all -- that we should value life while it is ours to live and live it fully. This is the lesson Stephen Kenyon, Duke of Ashburton learns when he is informed by his family physician that his recurrent stomach problems are incurable and that he has three months to live.

Stephen is thirty-six years old. He has been duke for only two years, but his whole life has centered on behaving as expected by his autocratic and often cruel father and by the society in which he lives. He takes his responsibilities seriously, cares for his dependents, is generous with his time and money, and is highly respected by his peers. He has endured over a decade of cold, passionless, and childless marriage to the woman chosen by his father. Now widowed, he hopes to find a new wife and perhaps start the family he has so long desired. He thinks he is finally free to live as he wished to live, to travel, to improve his relationship with his newly reconciled brother, Lord Michael, to become his own person. But, tragically, it is not to be. What does a man do when he receives his death sentence?

Stephen chooses to escape from the confines of his life, at least for a time, to try to come to terms with his fate. One evening, in a small town, he attends a theater performance by a group of traveling players, the Fitzgerald troupe. He is surprised at the high quality of the performance and struck by the presence and beauty of one of the actresses, Rosalind Jordan. The next day as he travels aimlessly, he comes upon the troupe waiting to cross a flood-swollen river. When young Brian Fitzgerald falls into the water, it is Stephen who rescues him.

And so, the duke meets the actress and her family and friends. But no one knows he is a duke; for the first time in his life he is merely a man. Stephen becomes a de facto member of the company, even appearing as the Duke of Athens in one of the plays. He becomes more and more attracted to Rosalind, the Fitzgerald's adopted daughter, whom they had found near the London waterfront nearly twenty-five years earlier.

Rosalind is the calm center of the talented and mercurial Fitzgerald family. She is a competent actress, but doesn't share the passion of her adopted family. Rather, she is the stage manager, the organizer, the psychologist, the caretaker. Rosalind had been married at 18, a decade earlier, but her philandering actor husband had died and she has since devoted herself to her family's well being. Stephen is captivated, both by her beauty and by her personality. Rosalind finds him charming, handsome, kind, and very attractive.

Both Stephen and Rosalind struggle against their growing love, she because she knows he is not of her world and must leave, he because he knows he has so little time. But finally, both decide to grab at happiness, however briefly.

This is a moving book. We may know (or think we know) that Stephen will not really die; after all, he is the hero in a romance novel! But Stephen does not know this, nor does Rosalind, nor do any of the other characters. Such is Putney's talent that, while the reader remains convinced that Stephen simply can't die (and may even figure out what the problem is), we still feel the characters' pain and suffering, as well as their precious love, all the more precious because it will end too soon. And we share in Stephen's growing acceptance of his fate and his growing conviction that one day he and his beloved will again be together.

Putney has created her usual cast of delightful secondary characters. The members of the Fitzgerald company, especially the talented and unconventional parents, add moments of grand humor to the story. Lord Michael and Catherine appear as do other figures from previous books. But this is really Stephen's and Rosalind's story and they are the most likeable hero and heroine that I have encountered in quite some time. One Perfect Rose will go on my keeper shelf along with most of Putney's other books. I know I will want to reread it because it is such a compelling story. Ballantine has certainly chosen wisely when it decided to embark on its new publishing format with this book. I know that I will be haunting the bookstores on June 3 to get my copy.

--Jean Mason

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