Once upon a time, an older sister wrote “Star Princess” fairy tales for her younger sister, so they would both have a magical way of escaping their overbearing, abusive mother. But, all happy endings come at a cost, and Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot layers stories over fairy tales to ultimately remind readers that “what they really want is the part that happens off the page, after the oven has been escaped, after the clock strikes midnight.”
In Roses and Rot, Howard tells the story of two sisters, Imogen and Marin, and the lengths to which they would both go to escape their shared past. The very real specter of their abusive mother—who has all the markings of Narcissistic Personality Disorder—haunts their memories, and even their interactions with each other.
The cruelty of their mother pervades the fairy tales Imogen composes, and also dictates how both women think of themselves as people and sisters, and how Marin thinks of herself as a dancer. When Marin, the beautiful dancer, would shine and excel, their mother basked in the glory. But when Imogen, the imaginative writer, would write stories and fairy tales, their mother claimed credit and destroyed Imogen’s reputation in her school.
So it is with the aim of not only bolstering their artistic credentials, but also escaping their mother, that Imogen and Marin—now reunited after an estrangement that began in Imogen’s high school years—apply for the famed artist’s residency at Melete.
Both are accepted to the exclusive program, and Imogen learns all too quickly that Melete is not exactly what it seems. The beautiful setting, artists’ houses, artistic inspiration, famous mentors, and Night Market are all connected to Faerie, which will, at the end of the residency program, claim one of the artists in residence as its own. But, the tithe Faerie requires demands that all of the artists—but especially Imogen and Marin—decide what they would “sacrifice in the name of success.” The reality of how the tithe will impact their lives puts the two sisters at odds, even though both of them want nothing more than to help each other escape their past, and their mother.
Howard’s storytelling and prose are as ethereal and otherworldly as they are raw and real. She manipulates the “Once upon a time” trope masterfully, exposing its gritty underside as much as she illuminates its breathtaking ability to draw us in and make us want the version of truth a fairy tale can provide. She tears down the wall between fairy tales and life—almost literally, within the novel—and analyzes why life is easier when people cling to fairy tales:
“For some people, the lie is so much easier to believe than the truth, that they’ll talk themselves out of seeing what is right in front of them.”
Escapism is a way to talk ourselves out of seeing—at least for a time—what is right in front of us. Many of us need that escape, but Howard’s novel questions the ultimate cost of that escape. When Imogen escaped into her stories, she did it out of necessity. In the end, though, Imogen and Marin both must face their mother and her pernicious legacy, no matter how many variations of the “Star Princess” stories Imogen may have written.
Truly though, “anything in life worth having is hard to earn,” even the closure Imogen and Marin needed not only in their relationship, but also regarding their mother. How they achieve that closure, though, is as fraught with difficulty, tension, and trials as the most intricate fairy tale.
“But there are times you don’t speak, because silence hurts less.”
“It’s easier to see the places where things end. Endings are clear, endings are dramatic, endings are obvious events.”
“Hearing things actually spoken, even when you already know what’s going to be said, makes them more real, more absolute.”
“I write when I don’t know what else to do. When I don’t know what to think. To deal with the pieces of life that are too hard, too painful to think about otherwise.”
Imogen and her sister Marin escape their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, whether it be art or love in this haunting debut novel from “a remarkable young writer” (Neil Gaiman).
What would you sacrifice for everything you ever dreamed of?
Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.