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Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary
by Pamela Dean
Pamela Dean's latest novel is a witty but disorienting fantasy set in 1993 Minneapolis. Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary are three sisters, aged 16, 13, and 11 respectively, who live with their parents in a glorious Victorian house. The viewpoint character is Gentian, who is a meticulous and devoted astronomer. When a new house springs up impossibly quickly in the vacant lot next door, Gentian is considerably irritated and fascinated: It's squat, it's squalid, and it's inexplicably blocking her telescope's line-of-sight from her attic room. She is even more irritated and fascinated by her new neighbor, Dominic Hardy. Dominic is young, handsome, and manipulative; he speaks solely in riddles and quotations; and he wants to build a time machine in Gentian's attic.
Like Dean's Tam Lin and her Secret Country trilogy, both the dialogue and the narration are awash with literary reference. Every page is full of allusions to Shakespeare and science fiction, Psammeads and sonnets. This is a book for people who love books; if you dislike this sort of thing, you may find it overly precious.
Gentian and her circle of friends are all in the throes of puberty, and much of the book centers on the very serious pursuits of adolescence: philosophy, identity, and Boys. Dean does a wonderful job of weaving their shared history out of in-jokes, catchphrases, and the unexpected joys of dangling participles. She also splendidly portrays the infighting and rivalry among the three sisters. (I do think she fails to sufficiently depict the shining moral superiority of the eldest sister, but as the eldest of three myself, I might be ever so slightly biased.)
Three quarters of the book is spent on wordplay and allusion and the general business of being Gentian before Dean settles down to the actual plot. This is delightful if you can relax and enjoy the writing for its own sake, but it's tremendously frustrating if you prefer a plot that stretches to either end of the book instead of hunching up at the rear. The ending, unfortunately, is weakly supported and poorly paced. It may be less disorienting to readers already familiar with the traditional ballad "Riddles Wisely Expounded," upon which the story is based.
Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary is an irritating and fascinating book. It will particularly appeal to readers who enjoyed Dean's Tam Lin. I wish the pacing had been more even, but I enjoyed the minutiae of Gentian's life. And I'll be sending copies to my two sisters.
-- Christina Schulman.
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