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Literature / The Rose Gardener

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The Rose Gardener (Die Rosenzüchterin) is a 2005 novel, in German, by Charlotte Link. It was translated into English in 2014.

It plays out in two narrative tracks. The bulk of the novel is set in 1999-2000 in Guernsey in The Channel Islands. Beatrice Shaye is a 70-year-old woman, a rose gardener, who has lived in Guernsey for almost all of her life. She lives there with Helene Feldmann, a German woman who is a little over ten years her senior. Beatrice worries about her son Alan, a lawyer in his early 40s with a terrible drinking problem. Part of Alan's drinking problem is rooted in his obsessive love for Maya, a temptress half his age.

Beatrice's humdrum existence is changed when she rents a room to a German woman, Franca Palmer. Franca, who is escaping a bad marriage, forms a friendship with Beatrice. Franca wonders why Beatrice lives with Helene, a German national who is not a blood relation. The story that Beatrice tells Franca is the novel's second narrative track, which plays out in a series of flashbacks. It turns out that Beatrice and Helene have lived together ever since 1940, when Nazi Germany occupied the Channel Islands. Beatrice was separated from her parents by bad luck and left behind on Guernsey, and a German officer, Major Erich Feldmann, commandeered her family's house, then brought his wife Helene out from Germany to live there. Beatrice tells Franca that Erich killed himself just a few days before the Channel Islands were liberated in 1945. But it turns out, that might not be true....


  • The Alcoholic: Beatrice's son Alan has a terrible drinking problem. When he's sober, he's charming and thoughtful and an excellent lawyer. But he needs liquor to get through every day, and when things get bad he has a tendency to go on benders that will last for days.
  • Beautiful All Along: Franca. She is a dowdy, quivering Broken Bird at the start of the novel, but after she gains self-confidence after leaving her husband and moving to Guernsey, it shows in her appearance. She gets a tan and starts wearing more flattering dresses and realizes that she can turn men's heads.
    "To her surprise she found she really could show off her body. She was much thinner than she had thought, and in fact she did have pretty legs."
  • Bilingual Dialogue: When Helene first meets Beatrice's boyfriend Frederic, after she showed up at the apartment uninvited. Helene, who really really hates the idea that Beatrice might have anyone else in her life, spitefully speaks to Beatrice in German so Frederic can't understand. Beatrice refuses to play along and answers in English, resulting in a bilingual conversation.
  • Blackmail: Part of The Reveal. Kevin wasn't mooching off of Helene because he was in debt due to a failing business. He was mooching off of Helene because the French mobsters were blackmailing him, threatening to turn him into the cops for participating in the boat-stealing racket with him.
  • Broken Bird: Franca at the start of the novel. She has problems with anxiety and panic attacks, and unfortunately for her, she married exactly the wrong man. Her husband Michael is an emotionally abusive asshole who constantly tears her down, blames her for her own problems, and tells her that she's weak and useless. His emotional abuse has left her a weak, quivering shell. Living on the island with Beatrice and escaping from Michael is key to Franca's recovery.
  • Call-Back: And Book Ends. The first scene of the novel has Beatrice, who earns a modest living growing roses, looking at one and reflecting on how she really doesn't like roses. It's symbolic of how her life hasn't gone how she wanted. The last scene has her looking at a rose with a new appreciation, having found some contentment with her life and fate.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Maya is trying to shock Alan. She points out a man named Gerard and tells Alan that she was having sex with Gerard regularly for a while. She further tells him that she participated for a while in a criminal racket of his, scouting out boats that Gerard's gang would then steal, repaint, and sell on the mainland. This turns out to be the reason why Helene was murdered: she overheard talk of the boat-stealing at Kevin's house and was killed because she knew too much.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Kevin takes some nervous puffs on a cigarette after Helene's murder. He breaks three matches before he manages to light one.
    "Lord, Kevin, whatever is the matter with you?" Beatrice asked. "Since when are you smoking again?"
    "Since Iíve started drinking too much."
  • Day of the Jackboot: It comes for Beatrice when the Germans show up in Guernsey in the summer of 1940. There are curfews, food is rationed, and all the children are forced to take German class.
  • Distant Finale: The epilogue takes place a year later. Julien evaded arrest with the other French criminals after Beatrice warned him and he got off the island. Franca's divorce is going through the courts and she and Alan are dating. Maya has turned over a new leaf, having decided to stop sleeping around, and she's gotten a job at a hotel on the island.
  • Domestic Abuse: Michael is not the sole cause of Franca's panic attacks and recurring anxiety, as shown by how she still has them after she breaks up with him. But he makes them far worse, telling her that she's weak and she's useless and eventually flaunting an affair in front of her. This emotional abuse has left her a Broken Bird.
  • Dramatic Drop: "The flashlight had slid out of her hand and fallen to her feet with a crash" after Beatrice discovers Helene, dead on the path, her throat cut.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Franca drinks "a lot of red wine" after realizing that Michael is cheating on her.
  • Framing Device: Franca's pen pal letters to Beatrice and her later direct questions to Beatrice are the framing device for the lengthy flashback sections that cover Beatrice's life under Nazi occupation, and later the years in the 1950s when she lived in London and was briefly married.
  • Girly Skirt Twirl: Helene gives "a twirl that sent the skirt of her white dress flying." She's happy after having dinner with Kevin, the gay neighbor who pays attention to Helene because she gives him money. Franca finds it ridiculous that a woman in her eighties dresses and acts like a young girl.
  • He Knows Too Much: Why Helene was murdered. She overheard the French mobsters talking to Kevin about their boat-theft racket.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Erich downs two whiskeys in quick succession after Helene slits her wrists and nearly dies.
  • Innocence Lost: Happens to 11-year-old Beatrice quite rapidly in 1940, when she is separated from her parents and left in the care of a German officer. She realizes this as she contemplates the stuffed animals in her room.
    "Her childhood was over. It had ended abruptly....Never again would Beatrice find comfort in holding a doll or a teddy bear."
  • It's All About Me: Helene. Franca pronounces her an "egoist". Helene binds Beatrice to her with her whining and complaining and cries of poverty. When Beatrice decides to sell her house in the 1950s after getting married, Helene goes so far as to tell Beatrice's husband that Alan isn't his baby (Beatrice had a fling with her old lover Julian), deliberately destroying Beatrice's marriage so that she would come back to Guernsey and the house. When she lived with Beatrice and Erich, she tried to kill herself, and after that got her a lot of attention she tried to kill herself several more times.
    Erich: Helene is always sad. It's in her nature. From morning to night, Helene thinks only about herself.
  • Job Title: Beatrice's father grew roses. After she came back to Guernsey for good, she bred roses for a living, even though she didn't really like it.
  • Just Following Orders: Erich orders that Julian and Pierre, the French POWs who are laboring at the house, not be allowed any water as they work. With the men on the verge of collapse on a hot day, Beatrice begs the guard to allow her to give them a drink. The guard refuses, saying "I'm only following my orders."
  • Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: Back in the 1950s, Beatrice got knocked up from an affair with her old boyfriend Julien, but tried to pass baby Alan off as her husband Frederic's. Helene maliciously told Frederic the truth, destroying Beatrice's marriage.
  • Meet Cute: Alan meets Franca when he finds her flopped over on top of his car, on the verge of collapse from a panic attack.
  • Murder by Inaction: Erich didn't kill himself. He was shot in the chest by Pierre, a French POW and the slave laborer who worked for him. Helene could have sent for a doctor, but she seized this chance to get out of a disastrous marriage, and deliberately let her husband die.
  • Overly-Nervous Flop Sweat: "Franca saw that a thin film of sweat covered his face" as Kevin invites her and Beatrice and Helene over for dinner. Kevin has been looking increasingly care-worn and stressed out over something, and his appeals for money from Helene (he's been mooching off her for some time) have grown more frantic.
  • Really Gets Around: Mae's granddaughter Maya, who is in her early 20s and is a high-living hedonist who for years has slept with just about any man who shows interest. Alan, who is twice her age, is desperately in love with her and can't break free even though he knows how much she sleeps around.
  • Right Through the Wall: Young Beatrice hears some strange noises from her parents' old bedroom, and sees Erich and Helene having sex.
  • Second-Face Smoke: Alan, pathetically in love with Maya, says that she should stop slutting it up and instead marry him. Maya, who is dragging on a cigarette, blows smoke in his face several times.
    "She blew smoke in his face. The gesture was meant to provoke him."
  • Secretly Wealthy: Helene makes everyone believe that she is living on a meager pension. After her death, Beatrice is shocked to find out that she had over £500,000, money her husband stole from Jews decades ago.
  • Start to Corpse: Helene's murder doesn't happen until the book is over 2/3 done. Of course, there is also the lingering mystery of Erich Feldmann's death in 1945, and the implication that there was something more to it.
  • Taking the Bullet: Kevin dies when he steps in front of a bullet meant for Alan. Alan wonders if Kevin was truly trying to save his life, or if he did it because he was looking to die.
  • There Are No Coincidences: Averted. Beatrice says this word-for-word after Franca observes that Helene was murdered on the 55th anniversary of her husband's death. But it turns out that it actually was a coincidence.