by Rebecca Silverman,

A White Rose in Bloom

GN 1

A White Rose in Bloom GN 1
Ruby and Steph both attend an elite boarding school for girls somewhere in Europe. Ruby, younger by a year, has no real reason to interact with Steph until the two of them are the only girls to stay at the school over Christmas break; while in forced proximity, Ruby finds solace in trying to get to know the mysterious older girl. No one really knows where Steph came from, whether the rumors about her steel prosthetic leg are true, or what her relationship is with the headmistress. But everyone agrees on one thing: Ruby has no business getting close to her, no matter how Ruby herself may feel.

Of all of the manga you would expect to find a bibliography of works consulted for, Asumiko Nakamura's Class S yuri series A White Rose in Bloom is probably not high on the list. And yet that's exactly what it has – a list of five references (three on English boarding schools and two on Latin) and an explicit mention of Enid Blyton's 1941 novel The Twins at St. Clare's. Nakamura mentions that she decided to write A White Rose in Bloom specifically because she read Blyton's book when she was a child, and some readers may find the title familiar because the children's classic was adapted into an anime series in 1991. It's an interesting juxtaposition of Western classic and Japanese genre fiction because “fidelity to actual boarding schools” is rarely a feature of yuri series, which tend to rely on a romanticization of girls' schools, ideas of proper womanhood, and sometimes Catholicism – and as anyone who's attended a women's or girls' school can tell you, the three very rarely combine into anything remotely resembling a garden of girlhood.

This book, however, does have more of a realistic flavor, if only just. The story takes place at an exclusive girls' academy somewhere in Europe (most likely England, although it's never named). We don't know the precise location or time period; things look vaguely mid-twentieth century, which is probably a nod to Blyton, and while there's clearly electricity, we don't see computers or cellphones. Steph, the mysterious upperclassman, is a refugee rumored to have lost a leg fleeing her former homeland; she's called “Steel Steph” by the other girls both for her steely demeanor and for the whispers that she has a prosthetic leg made of metal. Ruby, meanwhile, is a perfectly ordinary girl neither at the top nor bottom of the social order. She's just sort of working her way through school until she gets a letter from her mother – her parents are on the verge of either divorcing or making up, and to that end they're taking a trip together, which means that Ruby will have to stay at school over Christmas break. As it turns out, Steph, who has nowhere else to go, will also be remaining at school, and this throws the two girls together.

As readers of Nakamura's other series (Utsubora, Doukyusei -Classmates- ) know, there is a subtlety to her work, with more happening in the subtext between the spoken lines than anywhere else. In this her lissome art is tantamount to understanding what's going on – whether it's a glance slanted beneath feathery eyelashes or a face crumpling in emotions the character may not have a firm grasp of, the little details are what make the story work. That's especially true of Steph, who at first glance looks very much like a blank slate. Her one discernible habit appears to be smoking, which either speaks of an inner rebellion or a coping mechanism to deal with her refugee status. Otherwise she embodies “cool,” both in the James Dean sense and in that she could almost be made of snow. Ruby stands in direct contrast to her – as her name suggests, she's the red to Steph's white (although it's worth noting that both colors can be used to describe burning and heat). While Steph hides her emotions behind her veil of hair and long lashes, Ruby's every thought is spoken aloud and her feelings are plain to see.

Ruby, in fact, directly references Blyton's novel in her attitudes – in The Twins at St. Clare's, sisters Patricia and Isabel are angry with their parents for sending them to St. Clare's instead of to a fancier school where some of their friends from the equivalent of middle school are going. When Ruby's mother actually appears in person in the story, it's in part to tell Ruby (who is already angry with her parents for leaving her at school over winter break) that she's going to have to switch schools, since her parents are, in fact, separating and her grandparents will no longer pay for this one. This is also where we truly see that A White Rose in Bloom is a combination of the tropes of yuri and the English boarding school novel. A divorce in most western countries would not result in a family name change for the children as happens here, but the threat of having to leave a favored school is very much par for the course in works stretching back to Blyton's predecessors in the genre, most notably Mrs. L. T. Meade, a 19th-century Irish author who produced no fewer than 300 novels, many of them with titles like Betty, A Schoolgirl and Wild Kitty: A School Story.

A White Rose in Bloom is very much just getting started in this volume. The story doesn't show a huge amount of forward progression, but that's largely made up for by the skillful way in which Nakamura blends different traditions of girls' school stories, mixing the midnight feasts of British and American girls' literature with the strict hierarchy and crushes of Class S manga and novels. The framing of Steph and Ruby as being white and red (which combine to blush [pink]) suggests that as the series progresses the girls will come together to form a couple that integrates both of their strengths and weaknesses, making them into something new. Whether that something will be stronger or not remains to be seen, and there's enough here to make it feel like finding out will be worth it.

Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B+

+ Lissome, fluid art; interesting mix of British/American and Japanese schoolgirl tropes.
Not tons of forward progression, a familiarity with the British/American schoolgirl novel really is almost required.

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Story & Art: Asumiko Nakamura

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White Rose in Bloom (manga)

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