I have only read one other book by New Zealand author Barbara Ewing (The Mesmerist), but I loved it so much that I knew there was no risk involved in spending money on "Rosetta". Although Ewing seems to be somewhat unheard of in America (at least judging by the complete lack of reviews for her novels on Amazon.com), she is a consummate storyteller who can meld vivid characterization, nail-biting plots and intriguing historical context into a rewarding whole. So yeah, I definitely recommend Ewing's novels!
When Rosetta and Fanny Hall were children they would often dream about their future husbands, though when the time comes to wed neither one of them is particularly impressed with each other's respective suitor. Fanny marries the young clergyman of a small parish, and Rose weds a handsome viscount with an ambitious family. Both women soon find themselves disillusioned in their marriages; Fanny feels stifled and is sexually abused, Rose is caught up in her new family's machinations and her husband's philandering. Fanny gives birth to two children, but Rose miscarries, and her longing for a child seems doomed to remain unfulfilled when her husband is killed in the Napoleonic War.
The rest of the Fallon family has their own designs for Rose, particularly her conniving and cruel brother-in-law George, but she has other plans. For a long time Rose believed that she was named after a princess in a fairytale, but is fascinated when her father tells her that she was actually named after the city in Egypt where he once traveled. Then, on discovering the true reason behind her husband's death, she makes the decision to travel to Egypt and find the illegitimate child born to her husband and an Egyptian woman - not for her husband's sake, but for her own.
But it's not that easy. Not only does she have to brave the peril of a post-war Egypt where foreigners are hated, disease is rampant and dangers exist on every corner, but George Fallen is determined not to let anything endanger the ambitions that he has for the family name or blacken the name of his brother, which would surely be destroyed if society learnt that he fathered an Egyptian bastard. Rose is terrified, as there's no doubt in her mind that George will kill the child if he discovers it first - and so it is a race across Egypt to secretly find the infant before her brother-in-law does.
And yet there's so much more to this book than this singular plotline: as Rose goes to Egypt, Fanny is making her own escape from her husband and grappling with her lack of faith, likewise Rose is helped on her journey by a Frenchman who risks everything for her sake as their countries once again prepare for war. On her journey Rose is accompanied by her faithful servant Mattie, who is on the lookout for her runaway husband, and both are helped and hindered by a range of characters who all have their own stake in this business.
The story unfolds against a backdrop of historical discovery when the British troops stationed in Egypt discover the Rosetta Stone and believe that it's the key to deciphering hieroglyphs; a discovery that is not lost on Rose and her fascination with languages and the way that the past can speak to the present via the written word. The theme of knowledge and empowerment runs throughout "Rosetta" and Ewing has the rare gift of a novelist/historian: to infuse the story with interesting and authentic facts on the period without ever halting to deliver large info-dumps on the subject. When you read "Rosetta", you are immersed in the world of the characters without ever feeling as though the author is trying to teach you something on the way.
Ewing makes the most use of the frustrating and unfair patriarchal society that these characters live in. Long story short; the men have all the power, and the women none. Ewing never hammers this message in so much that it feels like a resentful feminist treatise, but rather simply presents the laws as they existed in that time, and how they affect the women in the story. To see Rose go through so much hardship and danger only to be continually thwarted by the restrictions and expectations of her society is almost teeth-grindingly difficult. She cannot fight it, only find ways to maneuver within it.
"Rosetta" is a novel of intrigue, manipulation, mystery and suspense; involving the relationships between parents/children, husbands/wives, servants/masters and the families that just won't leave you alone, even when you want them to. Rose is a wonderful heroine, who makes terrible sacrifices in order to secure the wellbeing of other, more vulnerable people in her life, and who copes as best she can amongst people who only want to use her for their own ends. Spanning several countries, the book explores the difference in cultures and belief systems for each time and place, all conveyed in Ewing's usual poetic-prose.
Bittersweet and joyful, tragic and hopeful; just like The Mesmerist, I found "Rosetta" almost impossible to put down.