Despite what purists might say, I have to admit I love classic retellings in literature. When Jane Smiley set King Lear on a modern-day Iowa farm in A Thousand Acres, Shakespeare’s battleground became that much more poignant. I’m also a sucker for Gregory Macguire (one-trick pony that he is) of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. He takes my favorite childhood tales and weaves a reverse kind of magic until those stories reveal details I never knew existed. It’s not simply that I get to revisit the actions of favorite characters (though in truth that is part of it); it’s that when a good author opens up the possibilities of a long extant tale, that story sinks even deeper into my consciousness. Jean Hanff Korelitz’s third novel, The White Rose, a retelling of Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier, does just that.
Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), Strauss’ first successful comic opera, is set in the eighteenth-century Viennese court and begins in the bedroom of the Marschallin of Werdenberg. The marschallin, a 32-year-old princess, has spent a passionate night with 17-year-old Octavian. Though pleasurable, the night reveals the princess’ mixed emotions: She knows Octavian will soon seek a younger lover. Rather than wait for the inevitable, she orders him to take a silver betrothal rose to a certain young girl. That young girl, Sophie, is headed toward an unhappy marriage with the princess’ relative, Baron von Lerchenau, but when Octavian delivers the rose, the two teenagers fall in love. Sophie’s angry father orders her to a convent, but Octavian, determined to win her hand, concocts a scheme to discredit the baron. Comic confusion reigns until the princess appears and reestablishes order. She forgives Octavian and nobly pushes him into Sophie’s arms.
Korelitz sets her version of the comedy, The White Rose, in modern-day Manhattan with a chic cast of characters that appropriately parallels Strauss’ Viennese court. To boot, she hits each of the opera’s many plot twists on cue: a brooding, lovesick youth, the impending wedding of a mismatched couple, mistaken identities and scandalous revelations. But rather than simply recreating parlor room comedy, Korelitz creates inner lives for her characters, examines each of their possibilities, each of their paradoxical natures.
In an opening as lyrical as it is incisive, The White Rose illustrates an emotional intensity uncommon in your everyday urbane romantic comedy: “Now it’s late afternoon and outside Park Avenue is clogged with strident, resentful cabs, but Marian—her name is Marian—feels oddly becalmed, borne aloft in the safe familiarity of her city and her bed, even as the angry horns float up and in her bedroom window, even as this wild pounding (his hips and her heart weirdly in tandem) moves her roughly against the sheet, a top note of friction, but good friction. This pounding—there is no other way to think of it, but how odd, thinks Marian. Pounded into submission? Pounded into sweetness?” At 48, Marian Kahn, the central character and daughter of one of New York’s oldest Jewish families, is a distinguished history professor at Columbia, an accidental best-selling author for her biography of an obscure eighteenth-century female hellion, a wife to a wealthy husband (conveniently absent for much of the novel), and the owner of an apartment on Park Avenue and a house in the Hamptons. Despite these successes, it is in her affair with 26-year-old Oliver, the son of her oldest friend, that Marian finds her most profound fulfillment.
Soon after the novel’s opening in Marian’s bed, she and Oliver are interrupted by the arrival of Marian’s churlish cousin and, later, by New York’s most annoying gossip columnist. When Oliver reappears in a disguise made up of a wig and Marian’s clothes, a bedroom farce ensues that is as modern as it is Shakespearian in its mixed identities and gender confusion. Throughout, though, we still get the satisfying subtleties of Korelitz’s characters. Oliver, a florist whose shop bears the title “The White Rose,” ignores complaints from customers that his roses die too quickly and is determined to create a rose that’s “pompous, overblown and incapable of regret.” And within the duration of her affair, Marian loosens the restrictions on herself and learns:
“When I was twenty, I had work I loved.
“When I was twenty-two, I had a husband I loved.
“When I was thirty-six, I had a chance to stay alive.
“When I was forty-six, I had a book, that I wrote, that changed everything.
“When I was forty-eight, the very age a woman is supposed to become invisible, there was a man, who actually saw me. And that was a gift.”
At times, The White Rose feels a bit too much like a ready-made Woody Allen movie (with a female lead instead of Woody), and near its end the novel struggles to maintain an equal balance between emotional intensity and bedroom comedy. But in light of the novel’s truly appealing qualities, these are minor complaints. Korelitz, the wife of poet Paul Muldoon, has previously written two legal thrillers, and The White Rose represents a very different, very significant kind of novel. Like Edith Wharton before her, Korelitz reexamines contemporary New York society by asking the right questions about adultery, social climbing, professional fulfillment and class distinction. As a result, her characters come off as charming as they are contradictory.
Jean Hanff Korelitz appears at Fact & Fiction Thursday, April 28, at 7 PM for a reading and signing of The White Rose.