Feb 22 2012 5:45pm

The Mortal Anguish in Mary Jo Putney’s One Perfect Rose

One Perfect Rose by Mary Jo PutneyOne of the first romance novels I ever read was Mary Jo Putney’s One Perfect Rose.  The hero, Stephen, is a duke.  When the novel opens he’s just discovered that he’s dying from an unusual stomach ailment and decides to travel, anonymously, to see life before the end.  As you might imagine, he doesn’t die in the end, but there is plenty of angst before that point.

The heroine, Rose, is part of a traveling theater company; she first sees Stephen out in the audience of one of their performances.  Shortly afterward is their meeting, which to me instantly turned Stephen swoonworthy.  A young boy from the troupe has fallen into a raging river.  Stephen is frozen with fear and is not ready to die, but leaps in anyway and saves the boy’s life. He and Rose swiftly fall into liking and from there into love.  It’s lovely to watch them discover each other, both before and after their hasty marriage.

But what made the book for me was the dark moment, or rather, the series of dark moments, given that the novel is about someone who truly believes he will only live a few more months.

The novel opens, in fact, with a major dark moment, when Stephen’s illness is first diagnosed.

“Mortally ill.”

The physician’s words hung in the air, stark and lethal as scorpions. Stephen…went still as he donned his shirt after the medical exam. Mentally he repeated the phrase, as if study would somehow alter its significance.

Mortally ill. He had known that something was wrong, but he had not expected… this.

…This might be his last summer.

He first hopes that the doctor is mistaken, then looks for factual answers, such as how long he might have to live.  Soon, though, he begins to take practical steps, the most practical being that he doesn’t want to die in as prosaic a fashion as he, a Duke, has lived, always putting the estate before himself, suffering through a joyless marriage and always following the appropriate social rules.

My enjoyment of this novel was how Stephen chose to react to his own despair.  Stephen has, before his diagnosis, lived a reasonably exemplary life, but he hasn’t truly lived in the sense of dancing in the rain and going bungee jumping.  How he changes his own character, and how in so doing he finds the good in his own character, is the true deliciousness of this novel.  Stephen is more admirable because of how bravely he faces his death.

It’s more rewarding to feel Stephen’s joy in living and in romance when he knows life will be cut short.  Then, of course, things get worse, because once he’s embraced his limited lifespan, Stephen must admit to Rose that his illness isn’t temporary, and Rose must admit to herself that she is in love with him.

There was a long, long silence. She sensed that he was considering what lie would best mollify her…finally…he said in a raw whisper, “There’s nothing you or anyone can do.”

…“What do you mean?”

… In a barely audible voice, he said, “I’m dying.”

… The magnitude of her anguish revealed just how deeply she cared for him. She had denied that, even to herself, to mitigate the pain of inevitable loss.

But the pain of separation had been a mere shadow compared to this.

Joy and love and pain all mingle.

[Rose] realized that what she saw in his gray-green eyes was peace. Even a kind of happiness. The hidden fear and anger at his fate that had been part of him since they met were gone. For that she was deeply thankful. Yet she realized sadly that his acceptance of dying was another step away from her.

After all the dramatic ups and downs, Stephen’s discovery that he is not, after all, doomed is deeply satisfying.  By the end, it’s obvious that love can sometimes truly conquer all, even the fear of death.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her novel The Moonlight Mistress is set during World War I, and she has a terrifying love of research about that period. Follow her on Twitter:@victoriajanssen or find out more at

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Aww, this was the first romance I ever read. The nostalgia!

Totally agree that the dark moments made the book; Stephen would never have met Rose or started really living his life if not for his (horrible) experience.

As you said too, "Stephen is more admirable because of how bravely he faces his death."
Carmen Pinzon
2. bungluna
This romace was spoiled for me a bit by the reveal at the end of the heroine's family history. I felt this detracted from the wonderful story of Stephen learning to "live".
Victoria Janssen
3. VictoriaJanssen
@redline_ you too, huh? There might have been a couple others in there for me, specifically a Nora Roberts my grandmother lent me in high school, but this one was the start of my romance glom which lasted until today.

@bungluna, I had forgotten about that bit! I think I skimmed over it in my re-read for this post.
4. Magdalen
I don't mind when wrinkles (like a potential for misalliance) are conveniently ironed out by the end of the book. It saves me having to write an imaginary coda to take care of all that nonsense: how his peers would receive a low-born wife, etc.

Yes, in a book like Joan Wolf's His Lordship's Mistress those details are necessary, but in One Perfect Rose where the whole point is about living like you're dying and then getting the convenient gift of being allowed to keep living that way for decades longer, I don't mind the author providing the equally-convenient gift of a less-objectionable wife.

Thanks, Victoria, for a lovely reminder of why this book is special. And damn you for adding to my TBRR (to be reread) pile! LOL
Victoria Janssen
5. VictoriaJanssen
@Magdalen - TBRR...I really needed that acronym. How did I not have it before?
Marian DeVol
7. ladyengineer
I love the new acronym, although this novel is still on my TBR pile (I do own a copy). I think it has moved up a notch or two.

MY first romance was a Georgette Heyer. At this point, I can't remember which one. I was in high school and that was TOO many years ago to count. ;->

Pretty much all of GH's work is periodically on my TBRR pile, some more frequently than others.
Victoria Janssen
8. VictoriaJanssen
I've been trying to prioritize my TBRR as well as my TBR...that way lies madness.
9. Janga
I love this book! MJP's Fallen Angels series and the two connected books are comfort rereads for me. I turn to them when I burn out on romance or need a palate cleansing after a major book fail.
Carmen Pinzon
10. bungluna
That's another reason why I re-read. Whenever a wall banger comes along, it's so comforting to turn to an old friend that's done it right.
Victoria Janssen
11. VictoriaJanssen
@Janga, this one and RIVER OF FIRE are my faves of that series.
12. patriceis
I recently read a sample of what I thought was a Mary Jo Putney novel. Now I can't find it. The herione was a governess who was rescuing her sister from a brothel and her employer wouldn't let her come back as she was late. I can't find it again and would love to read it. Any ideas???? Maybe it wasn't Putney?
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