Book Review

Muriel Barbery’s A Single Rose follows a French botanist’s emotional tour through the Zen gardens of Kyoto, Japan, to discover joy beyond grief. Like Barbery’s previous novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, this book’s charm originates in the rebellious heart of its philosopher protagonist.

Rose awakens jet-lagged in the Kyoto home of her late father, a Japanese art dealer she never met, where she has arrived for the reading of his will. (Never mind that old writing dictum not to open with your main character waking up. The delight in reading Barbery is she will deny you this and any other rule you might have in mind). Rose’s fury at the missed relationship is soon complicated when she goes snooping around her father’s architectural marvel of a home and discovers a wall of photos of herself, and with them, a revelation. Rose’s father has loved her from afar since she was a child. But why did he never reach out to her?

She embarks on a tour of Kyoto’s Zen gardens pre-choreographed by her father, chauffeured by his personal driver, and guided by his chief of staff, a Belgian art dealer named Paul who will become central to the story. In the days leading to the mysterious reading of the will, so begins Rose’s interior transformation. “She observed the tatami mats, the paper panels, the window opening onto branches in the sun, the crumpled peony; finally, she observed herself, as if she were a stranger she had met only the day before.”

Both Rose and Paul are grappling with the loss of beloveds: for Paul, his late wife, and for Rose, both parents and the grandmother who raised her. Touring together, they contemplate the meaning of suffering. “You feel as if you no longer speak the same language as other people,” Paul says. “And you realize it’s just the language of love.” These conversations make for bright sparks of pain and yearning as the two move from strangers—a valued employee, an estranged daughter—to intimates. Paul calls Rose a “pain-in-the-ass.” She agrees.

In this quick novel, Barbery is concerned with grief’s ability to illuminate joy. She executes this with a constant sensory bombardment of misty gardens, icy streams, cozy eateries, grilled fish, brothy noodles, cold beer, daily refreshed vases flowers in so many varietals, and the gentle propping up by her father’s devoted staff. Particularly fabulous is the central room in her father’s Kyoto home where many of the book’s epiphanies are realized beside a live maple tree growing at the center. “Its roots burrowed deep into folds of velvety moss; a fern caressed the trunk, next to a stone lantern; all of it was surrounded by glass paneling, open to the sky.”

Each new chapter is preceded by a half-page parable with a beat that will be mirrored along Rose’s narrative arc, creating a feeling of inevitability. So too with specific lines of poetry Barbery quotes then loops back to again in new shapes. Early in the garden tour, for example, Paul translates the poetry of Kobayashi Issa for Rose, “in this world/we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers.” Later, on another stop, “. . . they walked there together on the roof of hell admiring the trees, that this pendulum swing between the candor of happiness and the cruelty of desire was life itself.”

There is something doggedly hopeful in Rose’s ambivalence, something committed to growing while also honoring perpetual sadness. We learn, “At the age of forty, Rose has not really lived.”  Growing up in the French countryside, she “received the intelligence of the world.” Also, “She read novels, and in this way, through pathways and stories, her soul was crafted . . . until one day, as if losing a handkerchief, she lost her predisposition for happiness.”

Written originally in French, the English paperback edition of A Single Rose is translated beautifully by Alison Anderson, who also translated Elegance. Speaking of which, fans will recognize this new protagonist’s defiant streak, though Rose is drawn as more appealing. Barbery comes right out and tells us, unlike the Renee character in Elegance, Rose is pretty. “With the men who passed through her life, her lovemaking was so nonchalant that it might signify either fervor or half-heartedness. What was more, she never felt desire for more than a few days, and she preferred cats to men.”

At times, Rose’s frequent tears and passivity seem to contradict Barbery’s characterization of her, but maybe that’s the point. After all, Rose is a close study of emotional change. Upon arrival in Kyoto, her interior landscape begins to change as fast as her exterior one. We see these layers build up one by one, like at dinner one night, when Rose watches the chef place speared fish on skewers onto the grill. “He was sweating profusely, wiping his face with a white towel, but Rose did not feel disgusted the way she would have in Paris.”

In the end, Rose has become “someone else” entirely, which is one of the reasons we read novels, isn’t it? For proof that in life, before death, joy awaits. To watch someone else take all the dangerous risks first. For seekers of depth and beauty, A Single Rose is a perfect fantasy escape.

About the Reviewer

Amy Reardon’s work has appeared in The Believer, Alta Journal, Los Angeles Review of Books, Glamour, The Common, and Electric Literature, among other places. Follow her @ReardonAmy.