Rose’s Garden is much like the angel who serves as the focus of the book. At once beautiful and insubstantial, it leaves a pleasant memory of a simple time spent with good friends.
Conrad Morrisey is a 75-year old widower who is coping with the recent loss of Rose, his wife and childhood sweetheart. Normally a shy, withdrawn man, Conrad has retreated even further into himself after Rose’s death, hardly bothering to take care of his home or his wife’s garden. He often forgets to eat, and the only thing left for him to love are his prized homing pigeons. He spends his days wishing for death to reunite him with his beloved wife.
Then, on a stormy night, Conrad ventures outside to tend to his pigeons and sees an angel, complete with flowing robes and feathery wings. It’s in the image of his late father-in-law and it bears a message: his wife still loves him and is watching over him. This is to be the first of many visions that Conrad will have during the course of the book. What he sees will change his life and the lives of those around him. By the last page, Conrad is a different man, spurred on by his visions and memories to strive for the only greatness he may ever be able to achieve: a string of random acts of kindness that will make a momentary difference in the lives of his friends, his neighbors and complete strangers.
In spite of the supernatural undertones, there are no great revelations in this book. Conrad is an old man, and whatever changes he makes in his own life will only be with him for his remaining years. The changes that he inspires in others are fleeting. The author even leaves it unclear as to whether Conrad is actually seeing angels, or if his overactive imagination is leading him to create these visions in his own mind. But each sentence, each movement, is described so lovingly, and with such vivid detail that the book is worth reading just for the visuals that it inspires. From the rooftops of Brooklyn to the banks of a flooding river, Brown takes the reader along on the journey through Conrad’s life. The descriptions are nothing less than fantastic, making Conrad and those who occupy his world seem like three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings. Conrad could have been sitting next to me as I read about his life. I wanted to turn to him at certain points and offer words of comfort and reassurance as he struggled with the pressures of losing his love.
I also liked how the characters of Rose and her father, Lemuel, were dealt with. Although they are not living at the time of the story, the reader comes to know them through flashbacks and descriptions. After only the first few pages, I felt as though I knew Rose and I could feel Conrad’s loss.
Much of what works, however, in Rose’s Garden, also contributes to its minor flaws. In the beauty of the writing, transitions between flashbacks and current scenes are not always clear. The flow between past and present is occasionally lost. Also, the nearly poetic wording had the effect of slowing the pace of the book. Even during an especially climactic flood, the author uses a tone so gentle that she might be describing an afternoon tea.
Overall, Rose’s Garden is not supposed to be fast-paced or exciting. It is meant to be savored slowly, the way one would savor a quiet walk through a flowering garden on a spring day. The kind of garden that invites you to stop and smell the flowers.