Poignant, funny, heartbreaking—Rose’s Will, the largely autobiographical debut novel by Denise DeSio, elicits a gourmet smorgasbord of emotions.
The novel examines the life and death of Rose, a mentally ill Italian-heritage New Yorker, and the fall-out in her children. Told primarily through Rose’s daughter Glory’s eyes—the viewpoint of a woman who suffered tremendous lifelong abuse at Rose’s hands—the narrative is balanced and lightened by the insightful and likeable first-person perspective of Eli, a well-educated, elderly Bulgarian Holocaust survivor who falls in love with Rose despite—or, perhaps, partly because of—her many flaws.
After Rose’s death, ancient wounds surface during her children’s search for the will, the bickering about how to divide Rose’s money in its absence, and the climactic morning of September 11, 2001.
Written in flowing prose and with a born writer’s nose for pace and dialog, Rose’s Will enriches the reader with its unaffected and honest appraisal of human nature.
Toward the end of the novel comes this paragraph, a sort of “nut graf” of what the novel is all about:
“Talking helped to contain the terror, make it feel controllable, keep it from devouring us, but in the end words were pointless. With only a bridge separating us from the massive tragedy unfolding in Manhattan, nothing we could say or do could protect us from the profound wretchedness of our common humanity.”
When I finished the last page, I found myself wanting to ask DeSio a few questions and shot off an email. She was good enough to promptly respond:
LOURDE: You’ve said that the character of the abusive Rose is based on your mother, and that the character Eli is based on the man who loved her. Was seeing your mother through his eyes difficult? Was it the real life Eli who helped you see your mother through different eyes?
DeSIO: It was the real life Eli who blew me away with his ability to love a person like my mother and still remain authentic. But seeing Rose through his eyes felt both inspiring and infuriating—infuriating because he hadn’t experienced the same type of verbal and physical abuse she heaped on her children. One of my book reviewers astutely pointed out how common it is for friends and families of survivors to invalidate or minimize the abuse, which impedes the ability to heal. It made me go back and take another look at the book from that perspective. It was shocking to see how each character conforms to her observation: Rose outright denies abuse ever happened, Eli wants to focus on only the good, Claire can’t even fathom how bad it was, and Ricky is too wrapped up in his own misery. Aunt Lucy is the only one who openly validates Glory, which temporarily allows Glory to step away from her pain and feel some compassion for her sick mother.
LOURDE: Did writing Rose’s Will help you come to terms with your mother’s abuse? If so, in what ways? Joan Didion once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Do you write in order to understand yourself or others, or does something else propel you?
DeSIO: Yes, writing Rose’s Will was incredibly valuable in that I had to inhabit all the characters in order to write it, and any time we walk in someone else’s shoes there is potential for understanding. I’m so grateful for that and I completely agree with Joan Didion. Words put everything into perspective for me. Articulating my experiences word by word, reordering sentences, compelling myself to slow down from lightning speed thoughts creates a rich environment for introspection. Most people don’t realize that writers read their own work–well, except for Danielle Steel maybe. Kidding. But seriously, I’ve read Rose’s Will many times, and each time I see something that I hadn’t seen before. The last time I read it I laughed out loud to see that I’d described one of the characters as having the depth of emotion of a deck a cards, and then unintentionally made her “shuffle” off to the other end of the room.
LOURDE: Why did you decide to put the sections dealing with Eli in first person, as well as the sections presented from Glory’s point of view, and yet you chose to put the sections from other characters’ POV in third person?
The first line of Ricky’s intro has him quietly entering the house not to disturb anyone. That’s who he is, a guy who suppresses who he is not to create a disturbance. As a result, he’s lost touch with himself and therefore can’t reliably speak for himself. Conversely, Glory and Eli both have a firm grasp on their identities and the ability to re-evaluate who they are. Whatever head-space they’re in, we believe them.
LOURDE: Didion (okay, one of my favorite authors) also said, “…writers are always selling somebody out.” How did the people who are still alive and on whom you based some of the main characters (Ricky in particular) react to their representations? How do you handle their reactions?
DeSIO: “Ricky” has been extremely supportive. I don’t feel like I sold him out. In fact, many readers empathize and identify with his character. We have a great relationship now and he’s actually kind of thrilled to be a main character. As for anyone else I might have thrown under the bus, well, they weren’t speaking to me before the book was released, so I gleefully exaggerated freely.
LOURDE: You’ve said that you spent ten years editing Rose’s Will. How did it evolve over time? With what basic premise did you begin, and did that change over the years? Were you at all surprised with where you ended up?
DeSIO: I’m not sure you could call the original document a basic premise, more like a cataclysmic whirlwind that vaguely resembled a memoir in the style of Mommie Dearest. It was awful and I have since destroyed the files for fear that one of my resentful family members might sell them to The National Enquirer someday. When I finally wore myself out (it took years), I went to a writer’s conference with a short story I’d written about Eli (now the prologue for Rose’s Will). It was very well received and I saw an opportunity to repurpose (read: edit like hell) the memoir and turn it into a novel. The new direction allowed me to switch my focus in the last couple of years and apply a maniacal degree of attention to the craft. In the end, no one was more surprised than I was to have a completed a novel. Surprise turned to shock when a publisher offered me a contract within weeks of my initial queries.
Thanks for such intelligent questions, Kathleen. I’m such a great fan of your writing and I can’t wait to read your debut novel! Oh, and make sure you include this line in the interview.
# # #
Rose’s Will is currently available only as an ebook. It will be out in print this summer.