This book delivers almost exactly what the title offers: A sympathetic, perhaps even sentimental, look at the slightly crazy people who organize their lives around rose competitions. If you imagine a non-satirical Best in Show, except with flowers, then you will have an almost perfect mental image of this book. The book is breezily charming, and, unless you are already an avid competitive rose enthusiast — and if you read PopMatters regularly I’m betting you’re not — it also might teach you something about roses.
It turns out, for instance, that when Gertude Stein said, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” she was lying. Or, at any rate, she was underestimating the flower. She later glossed her point by noting that “in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.” But roses are not red only: “The rose is more geographically adaptable; appears in more sizes, colors, shapes, and blossom types; and blooms over a longer period than any other flowering plant.” And, over the course of Otherwise Ordinary People, Aurelia Scott does introduce many different roses. She doesn’t have much choice: Some of the people she profiles have more than upwards of 500 roses in their gardens.
A rose competition turns out to be a pretty bizarre ritual. Obviously, judges can only evaluate the flowers that they see, and so all that a prize means is that “this flower was the best at the moment the judges walked by” … and that’s all. Maybe another flower looked better earlier in the day, or perhaps now it’s later in the day, and yet another flower looks better. If judging begins at 9:00am, growers will frequently arrive between one and three in the morning in order to groom their roses with q-tips and other totems or fetishes that promise to have just the right look six hours down the road. Ted Hughes called daffodils, “a fleeting glance of the everlasting,” and he could as easily have been speaking about a perfect rose. The rose is perfect for a moment only, and if the judges happen to see it at that moment, then it is a winner.
What makes rose competitions so maddening is that the ephemeral moment of perfection represents the fruition of months or even years of planning, planting, fertilizing, spraying for pests, kludging together protection from excessive cold or heat, and the like. Because the rose has to be ready for exhibition on a particular day, growers follow exacting schedules, not just with precision, but with enthusiasm. One competitor notes, “Roses are easy to grow, but you have to have a disciplined mind. Feeding, pruning, disbudding, deadheading, spraying — you must do your chores when they need doing. When you see the onset of powdery mildew, you must spray immediately, not say, ‘Well, I’ll do it on Saturday.’ By Saturday it will have taken over the garden.” When Scott wonders whether so much work could be a pleasure, the competitor, Tommy Cairns, demurs: “Deadheading, feeding, spraying — they’re not really chores; they’re how you spend time with the roses. Roses help you shed the stress of the day. They’re always beautiful, always interesting, often challenging.” That sounds like a pretty laid-back philosophy, but, as Scott makes clear (and as Tommy Cairns admits pretty openly), it masks a ferocious drive for order and a will to win.
One is capable of wishing that Scott might’ve poked a little harder at the question of spraying. The serious competitors, almost without exception, spray their roses with a vast array of chemicals, including fungicides and insecticides so toxic that one woman terrifies her neighbors by administering them in a hazmat suit. Scott accepts pretty quickly the competitors’ claim that “the perfection sought by exhibitors requires the use of chemicals.” She notes that “now that I’ve spent time among serious rosarians … I’m jealous of Kitty’s [the hazmat lady’s] gorgeous plants. They’re thick with shiny foliage and fat buds.”
I don’t doubt that the roses are gorgeous, nor do I doubt that most suburbanites blast their yards with far graver amounts of chemicals. But there is something vaguely obscene about the claim that “perfection … requires the use of chemicals” — an argument that the defenders of the great suburban lawn might well also make. What’s weird about it is that the standards of rose judging are fairly subjective. There is a kind of rubric, so that the judges and exhibitors agree in advance on what to value, but the application of that rubric is more art than science. It’s not as though there’s some intrinsic notion of rose beauty; instead, rose competitions rely on conventions, and those conventions could well be changed.
The great unspoken subtext of Otherwise Normal People is just how many of its exhibitors are retirees. Most of her exhibitors tell stories that run along the lines, “I retired, and planted a couple of roses, and just fell in love.” On the one hand, this gives a whole new urgency to T. S. Eliot’s juxtaposition, in “Little Gidding,” of “the moment of the rose” and the “moment of the yew tree.” On the other hand, though, it does lend the book a sweet air of harmless oddity. These are not perfectionist Little League parents, or couples avoiding the empty shell of a marriage by absorbing themselves in hobbies. Instead, most of Scott’s interviewees find connections through roses to themselves, to their partners, and to a community of people like them.