Roses, Rhododendron Summary
The bright blossoms of the rose and the rhododendron remind Jane of the summer when she was ten years old. During the previous spring Jane’s father ran off with a young woman, leaving her and her mother in an antique-filled city apartment in Boston. One evening during a thunderstorm, her mother decides to move to North Carolina and open an antique store. Thus the two find themselves in a small southern town, where Jane first experiences falling in love with a place, a house, and a family.
To fill Margot’s shop in their small house requires scouring the surrounding countryside for pieces to sell. Sometimes, Margot wants to do this alone and encourages Jane to explore the town. On one of these trips, Jane notices an odd-shaped house surrounded by lawns covered with tangled, blossoming flowers. She also sees a woman walking very stiffly. With her small, shapeless body and beautiful white hair, the woman is very different from her own mother, who bleaches her hair and wears gaudy clothes. The second time she investigates she meets Harriet Farr, the child of the family, who invites her in to eat cake. The inside of the house, with its books and nineteenth century paintings, seems marvelous to Jane.
The two girls become fast friends, reading, exploring, and talking about books, sex, and life together. Margot is making friends also, so when Jane begins spending more time at the Farrs’ home talking with Mrs. Farr, Margot does not appear to care.
Jane is fascinated with the Farrs’ lifestyle. Unlike Jane’s mother, Mrs. Farr cares about books and flowers. Mr. Farr, a lawyer, reads literature and acts in a courtly manner. The Farr home has many spaces where the two friends can be alone. Unlike her own world, the household seems calm, ideal. Although her mother has met Harriet and likes her, Jane senses that the parents would clash, so she does not introduce them. When her mother tells her some gossip about Mr. Farr having been in love with a much younger woman, Jane instantly puts the thought out of her mind. Once Jane observes a dinner table argument, but she prefers to forget that too.
As the summer continues, this viewpoint becomes harder to maintain. Once during a thunderstorm, when Jane expresses concern about her mother, she catches Mrs. Farr staring at her flowers, looking old and talking sadly of unrealized ambitions. When Mr. Farr announces he will be late for dinner, a shadow crosses her face. Her own mother has begun spending time with a man named Larry; only much later in life did Jane realize this was a result of jealousy.
Soon Jane’s mother and father reconcile, and they leave North Carolina for San Francisco. For a while, the two girls write once a week, Jane telling of the wonders of the city, and Harriet writing about friends, bike rides, and books. In high school, their letters become more infrequent but, in the solitude of her room, Jane sometimes reenacts stormy adolescent scenes in the cool, calm manner of Harriet. When Jane goes to Stanford, the two girls lose touch.
Several years later, Jane hears that Emily has abruptly left her husband and gone to Washington, D.C., to become a librarian. Jane imagines the couple to be happier apart and is pleased. She has no direct contact with Harriet. She occasionally reads one of her poems and wants to write her but does not know how to approach her without being embarrassed by the things she wants to say. Later she learns that the couple has not been happier apart; that Mr. Farr has been drinking too much and has developed emphysema; and that Harriet travels a lot, has married several times, and has no children. When Mr. Farr becomes too ill to care for himself, Emily returns to care for him until he dies. She dies a few years later.
Jane finally writes to Harriet, in care of a poetry magazine. Months later a letter comes from Rome. Harriet recalls her parents’ deaths but remarks that in the midst of it all, the image she remembered was of two ten-year-old girls on their bicycles. The image recalls her childhood, but the important thing about it was her parents’ feeling for Jane. Jane was the one constant in their lives, the one element that they agreed on. When Jane was there, Harriet was not jealous; she thought that her parents liked her better with Jane than alone. Jane’s presence brought harmony to the Farr family.
This revelation makes Jane, now in her thirties, examine her past and find new colors there. In a postscript to the story, she remarks that when she shows Harriet’s letter to her husband, he says that Harriet sounds very much like her.