Galilee Garner, called Gal by her few friends, lives a strict and very precisely regimented life. Part of this is out of necessity as she has a chronic kidney disease that has had her on thrice weekly dialysis for almost 10 years after her previous transplants eventually failed. But part of it is who she has become in her life: a bitter, prickly, inflexible, exacting biology teacher at the local Catholic high school who holds her students to impossible standards and who has lost all sense of the social niceties. She is firm and rude and clipped with others believing that she alone is cutting through the BS and being honest and truthful, uncaring of her effect on others. In reality, she has encased herself in a thorny covering to protect herself, to avoid the unwanted pity or the falsely sympathetic. It is only when Gal gets home from her days at school and moves into the solitude and sanctuary of her greenhouses to work with her beloved Hulthemia roses that she blossoms. She is not simply a rose grower, she is a rose breeder, determined to cultivate a rose worthy of being called Queen of Show, to bring the elusive fragrance back to her favorite type of cultivar.
When Gal's niece Riley, her estranged addict sister Becky's teenaged daughter, shows up unannounced and unexpected at her school, Gal's carefully guarded life is thrown into turmoil. Riley's mother has sent her to stay while she pursues a job across the globe, neither asking her sister's permission to send her daughter nor preparing her daughter emotionally for the massive changes both of them will have to make to accomodate the other. Riley is fragile after her mother's abandonment, academically behind, emotionally mercurial, and she is slow to fit in with her classmates at the school where Gal teaches. She does try to fit into this aunt she hadn't seen in years' world but she is every bit as damaged a child as Gal is an adult and there are frequent episodes of drama or tantrums from her. Riley's very presence challenges Gal and her notion of refusing to compromise as she tries to suddenly parent a three quarters grown child and comes to realize that the first and most important key to parenting is flexibility, completely counter to the mantra of her life thus far.
Gal very definitely starts off as an unlikable character and since she is the first person narrator, this presents a hurdle to the reader. But anyone who stays with the novel will be rewarded by watching Gal slowly change. The changes are neither easy nor absolute but they are honest and presented (complete with backsliding) in the way that real life works. Her tentative opening up of her heart to Riley and the other secondary characters and an eventual serious, close and unflinching examination of herself and her effect on others is well-done and believable. The abrasive Gal of the beginning of the book is kinder and gentler, less judgmental but with her firm moral core still intact, making her more likable over all. The insights into growing roses and the painstaking care with which their breeding occurs is interesting as is the glimpse into the competitive world of showing roses although the breadth of information could overwhelm some readers uninterested in the mechanics of gardening. Life with a chronic disease and the impact that the disease has on every aspect of a person, including personality and varying perceptions of those not suffering such a fate, is fascinating and well-integrated into the story thanks to Gal's self-referential musings. A touching look at the way we live in the world, compassion, how we treat others, and the love we carry for family, this is a quick and rewarding read.