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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Single Rose

Muriel Barbery

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To purchase A Single Rose

Title: A Single Rose
Author: Muriel Barbery
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 148 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Single Rose - US
A Single Rose - UK
A Single Rose - Canada
Une rose seule - Canada
Une rose seule - France
Una rosa sola - Italia
Una rosa sola - España
  • French title: Une rose seule
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B : shows a decent delicate touch in much of the telling, but ultimately too facile

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Devoir . 5/9/2020 Manon Dumais
Le Figaro . 9/9/2020 Alice Develey
Le Monde . 9/10/2020 Monique Petillon

  From the Reviews:
  • "Épousant la mécanique d’un rituel, empreint d’une sobre sensualité, le récit initiatique de cette femme déracinée transcende la romance conventionnelle au profit d’une célébration de la vie et de la force de la nature." - Manon Dumais, Le Devoir

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Single Rose begins with the central character, Rose, waking up in the house of her father, Haru, in Japan -- a world away from her French home. Her father recently died, and she has come here to settle his estate. She never met the man whom her mother had left before her birth (and, of course, now it is too late). She knew only the bare outlines -- "She knew his name, knew she was rich. Her mother had occasionally spoken about him, indifferently" -- and had never been in contact with him.
       This void in her life seems to have had a profound effect on her: we are told, early on, that: "At the age of forty, Rose had not really lived". It seems to be the general impression of her: out later with some friends of her father's:

     "He says you look even more dead than your father," Paul translated.
     "Charming," she murmured.
     "Completely frozen," he specified.
     Keisuke laughed, twittered on as he looked at her.
     "He thinks its good karma, that you have to die a first time in order to be truly born."
       From the first, there is some concern that A Single Rose will be the kind of sappy novel of a woman finding her true self and being reborn (in a conveniently exotic foreign setting, because of course that always helps). The setup is certainly tailor-made for it, complete with Haru's Belgian assistant Paul -- conveniently tragically widowered -- tasked to show her around Kyōto, and much of the novel following them as he introduces her to the world Haru wanted her to see, before finally, at the end of the week, going to the lawyer 's office to deal with the paperwork.
       As obvious as all of this might seem, and indeed even as obviously as Barbery leads down this seemingly inevitable course, A Single Rose manages to avoid the overly saccharine for a good while. It helps that Rose is morose and, mostly, reluctant. She doesn't readily open herself up to this new experience -- though, given how radically different from her world it is, right down to the food, it is of course difficult to remain as closed-off as she'd seem to like to be. Her father -- an art dealer, specializing in contemporary art -- was clearly a very sociable and warm man -- as even Rose must realize, given the devotion of those who knew him -- and she makes a nice stand-offish contrast to that. Japanese reserve and ritual is here also nicely coupled with some disarming (often alcohol-induced) frankness in how she is dealt with by those who knew Haru.
       While there's a great deal of deference to Rose, and a generosity that is clearly due to their love of Haru, extending now to his daughter (whose existence practically no one knew of, either), those who knew Haru don't always hold back -- telling her she's a pain in the ass, for example. Still, it's that quality that helps sustain the story, the fact that for decades dreary Rose basically simply turned inwards -- and found only emptiness there. She's most sympathetic -- and interesting -- at her darkest:
     "Life always ends up crushing us," she said. "What's the point of trying, since we're in prison ?"
       Alas, dad is intent on breaking her out, even from beyond the grave, -- and, in assistant Paul, has the ideal vessel to do so. Paul explains to her that, from the moment she was born, Haru was determined: "to leave his daughter with a legacy that would provide solace" -- and that's what his carefully planned out last will and testament routine amounts to.
       Haru has carefully choreographed Rose's slow immersion into his world. A nice touch is the many Zen gardens Paul drags her to, day after day -- as Rose is a botanist, more used to flower-beds than the austerity of Zen gardens. (Plant-life does not get short shrift, either, however -- though it generally also comes with a distinctive Japanese spin, right down to Haru's observation that: "the world is like a cherry tree one has not looked at for three days".) Rose isn't quickly won over -- "No one lives in a Zen garden", she points out -- but slowly her exposure to this world of differences and her encounters with those who knew her father force her to open up.
       She has to face and come to terms with her own, so long unlived -- in any meaningful way -- life, and is given the opportunity to reach out and seize this second chance.
       Will she take it ?
       What do you think .....
       Each chapter is preceded by a short classic tale or account from Chinese or Japanese tradition, generally Zen-like and gnomic, that then also ties in with what Rose will experience, neat little pieces that reïnforce the general loose, would-be exotic drift of the story. Atmosphere is played up -- to the hilt -- from Haru's home to the tea-houses and, of course, Kyōto's famous temples -- but also includes, for example, the incongruous and rough modernity of much of contemporary Kyōto. It's effective and engaging, Rose's voyage of discovery an appealing tour that is a bit heavy on an idealized Japan but tosses in enough of those discordant edges.
       The inevitable re-birthing accelerates, leading up to the reading of the will -- which, in and of itself, is oddly anticlimactic, Rose simple drifting off and barely catching a word of it. But then the actual legal ritual isn't what matters, it's everything else -- so also the letter of explanation dad left for her, spelling everything out.
       Barbery can't resist the ultra-obvious conclusion, right down to Rose's triumphal realization (well, quiet thought, but still ...) at the end, that: "I'm home" (never mind her final "silent cry within" ...). To say A Single Rose has a happy ending doesn't even come close to capturing the picture of perfection, of everything falling into the right place, it offers at the end; one is almost surprised there isn't the neatest-tied of little bows stamped on the final page.
       A Single Rose is not such much balm as a full-blown-celebration for those who want their fiction to be comfortingly and wonderfully warmly life-affirming. Bonus message: it's never too late ! Even the dreariest soul can be revived ! (Though presumably it helps if someone has mapped out the course from A to Z, with everything that can be pre-arranged, with any number of attendants, down to the chauffeur at one's beck and call.)
       Barbery is a talented writer. A Single Rose is fully engaging, and, in many ways, a gripping read. The characters do tend to extremes -- and not just in the misery of Rose's existence to date -- and it's a bit tragedy-heavy (Rose's mother was a suicide; Paul's wife is dead; others have suffered similar losses), but the fairly rapid movement between a very wide variety of characters keeps the story bubbling nicely along. Barbery has a very good feel for Japan, not least as experienced by outsiders, whether long term expatriates (Paul, as well as another woman Rose meets) or newcomer (Rose), and while arguably a bit too taken by all things Japanese this works well, especially as long as Rose remains at least somewhat resistant and reluctant. Scene by scene, most of A Single Rose is really quite good.
       Ultimately, however, Barbery opts for an all too neat picture and resolution. If Rose and her past start off as bleaker than what would pass muster in your average Lifetime or Hallmark made-for-TV-movie, Barbery ultimately finds her way to a conclusion that's entirely true to that genre. She long shows an agreeably -- dare one say, Japanese -- delicate touch, but her bigger picture tosses any subtlety by the wayside - a shame, because she otherwise shows the potential to craft a more nuanced, resonant tale.
       A Single Rose is a nice little novel -- but ultimately also way too nice, Barbery falling back on the completely crowd-pleasing. It won't be everyone's cup of matcha -- and, yes, of course Rose is exposed to matcha ... -- but obviously there is a market and a place for this kind of life-(and-love-)completely-affirming, enlightenment-finding fiction. Yet even those that cringe at its final sickly-sweet turns can enjoy much of what Barbery does here; it's just a shame that she does it to these particular too-easily found ends.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2021

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A Single Rose: Reviews: Other books by Muriel Barbery under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Muriel Barbery was born in 1969.

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© 2021 the complete review

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