Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2550
The prologue begins with Wilson asking the question, "Is it possible, I wonder, for a man to truly change? Or do character and habit form the immovable boundaries of our lives?" Wilson identifies the catalyst to his renewed efforts to energize his relationship with his wife: he forgot their twenty-ninth anniversary. He sees this incident as the culmination of the many years he has taken his marriage for granted. While he loves Jane just as much as when they first married, he also recognizes that Jane may not feel the same way. Wilson presents the reader his story, relating the events and emotions of the previous fourteen months, beginning with the missed anniversary.
Chapter 1 explores the current state of Wilson and Jane's relationship. Wilson considers the personality differences of Jane, himself, and their three children, Anna, Joseph, and Leslie. He acknowledges that most of the child-rearing responsibilities have always fallen on Jane's shoulders and now that the children are grown, he feels that Jane knows them much better than he does. Anna, the oldest, works for her local newspaper and has dreams of becoming a fiction writer. Joseph is a social worker at a battered women's shelter. Leslie, the youngest and still in college, is studying biology and physiology with the hopes of becoming a veterinarian.
Shortly after the missed anniversary, Jane announces to Wilson that she wants to visit Joseph in New York for a couple of weeks, alone. Wilson realizes that his marriage is in a state of crisis, and he visits his father-in-law Noah Calhoun to chat and get some relationship advice. To Wilson, Noah is the authority on how to make a marriage work. The romance between Noah and his late wife, Allie, has taken on almost mythic proportions in the family consciousness. After talking with Noah, Wilson "knew what [he] had to do."
Wilson resolves to court Jane as if they were first starting to date. However, he is not sure why she fell in love with him to begin with. He is not a very romantic guy; he's too practical. He recalls some of his attempts to re-court Jane in the months after the forgotten anniversary, such as cooking fancy meals for her and working off some extra weight. He then explains an important event that occurs just as the thirtieth anniversary nears. Anna bursts through the front door and announces that she and longtime boyfriend, Keith, want to get married in one week, on Jane and Wilson's thirtieth anniversary.
Wilson thinks back on how he and Jane first met, the first time he told Jane he loved her, their first home, and how their relationship developed. Wilson mentions compromises that they both made early in their relationship: Jane settled for a simple civil ceremony instead of a wedding in a church followed by a big reception; Wilson moved to New Bern. Wilson sees the importance that Jane puts on Anna's wedding as a reflection of the regrets she has about their wedding.
Wilson visits Noah at Creekside, the nursing home where he now resides. His wife, Allie, has passed away, and now Noah spends most of his time by the pond. Wilson finds Noah sitting on a bench feeding a particular swan, his copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass lying beside him. Noah loves Whitman's poems, and he has a strong attachment to this particular copy of Leaves of Grass; the book itself had comforted him during his military service and had even taken a bullet for him during World War II. Noah has a strong attachment toward the swan, but the narrative does not yet reveal the reason for this attachment, other than to say that it causes the doctors to think Noah is delusional. Noah recalls a special moment when he and Allie had first reunited after being apart for fourteen years; they took a canoe out onto a lake filled with swans. Noah explains how Allie was always fascinated by swans because of their lifelong devotion to their mates. Wilson has heard this and other stories of Noah and Allie's relationship many times before, told by both Jane and Noah. He understands their importance. When Wilson returns home, he reflects on the ways he has failed Jane in their marriage, with what he terms "innocent neglect."
The wedding plans now underway allow Wilson an opportunity to express his love for Jane in a tangible way. During the week of planning, Wilson makes an elaborate dinner for Jane to help her relax. She comes home very excited that one of her favorite photographers happens to be available for Anna's wedding. When Jane expresses concern about the cost of the wedding, Wilson, a characteristically frugal man, assures her not to worry. She cannot believe her ears. As they are giggling and joking, Wilson thinks back to their first date. He had made reservations at an expensive restaurant, but they lost their reservation because they were delayed helping a stray dog find its owner. As Wilson's mind returns to the present, the easy mood between him and Jane breaks down into awkwardness. He then brings up when he asked Noah for Jane's hand in marriage. This is the segue to Wilson's proposal that they should have Anna's wedding at Noah's house. Jane agrees.
As Wilson takes care of more wedding plans, he thinks back to the first time Jane told him about her parents' legendary relationship. Wilson continues to run errands for the wedding, stops by to see Noah, and then meets up with the landscapers at Noah's house. Later, Jane tells Wilson how exasperated she is with Anna because Anna can't seem to make up her mind about anything—she seems to be just going along with whatever Jane likes. On top of that, Jane is fretting about the caterer. Wilson assures her that he will take care of everything. He feels some of the old magic of their relationship returning.
Wilson is making dinner for Jane when she returns home. As they chat about their respective days, Wilson remembers how worried he was returning to law school at Duke for his last year, being concerned that Jane would meet someone else while they were in separate cities. Wilson mentions to Jane that he wishes there had been time for Keith to ask him for Anna's hand in marriage, as he found the experience of asking Noah for Jane's hand quite character building. Wilson thinks back on how he proposed to Jane, and the two of them go for an evening walk. There is a brief and tense discussion of Noah's attachment to the swan, but the details are withheld from the narrative.
Wilson arranges for the Chelsea, Jane's favorite restaurant, to cater the wedding. Jane is extremely pleased. Wilson thinks back to five days after he and Jane were married, when Jane requested that Wilson go to church with her and later pray with her, even though he was an atheist. He remembers her saying that she made compromises for him, like having a secular civil ceremony, and now she needed him to do this for her. This memory fuels Wilson's determination to make Anna's wedding great. Jane's sister calls and informs Wilson that Noah is in the hospital.
Noah has tripped on a root near the pond and hit his head. Jane and Wilson rush to the hospital and meet up with Jane's siblings. When Noah is finally allowed visitors, he first asks for Wilson, alone. Wilson knows why; he is the only one who is sympathetic to Noah's belief that the swan is Allie reincarnated, and Noah wants him to feed her while he is in the hospital. While Wilson is not convinced that the swan is Noah's reincarnated wife, it doesn't bother him to indulge Noah. Later that evening, Wilson apologizes to Jane for how absent he's been from their marriage. Jane tells Wilson why she married him and why she loves him; his willingness and ability to provide so well for the family has always meant a lot to her.
Wilson comes back from a morning walk to find that Jane has made breakfast. Anna comes to the house and whispers to Wilson that she cannot wait until the wedding. It seems as though there might be more to the wedding than meets the eye. Anna and Jane leave for Raleigh and Greensboro to shop for a wedding dress. As the girls prepare to leave, Wilson and Jane share a romantic kiss in the driveway.
When Wilson goes by the nursing home to feed the swan, she isn't interested in food. Reluctantly, Wilson talks to the swan, explaining that Noah is going to be fine. He is surprised to see the swan suddenly begin eating. Wilson later visits Noah in the hospital and brings him his treasured copy of Leaves of Grass. Wilson leaves to check on the wedding preparations and reminisces about the kiss he and Jane shared earlier in the day.
Wilson is re-courting Jane in the same fashion that he courted her in their first year of marriage. He remembers how building their first house had taken a toll on her, and in order to speed up the process, he secretly hired a crew to work on the house and kept Jane away from it during the last week of building. He then surprised her with the finished house, much sooner than she thought it would be ready. In the same way, he keeps Jane away from Noah's house while it is undergoing the wedding renovations so he can surprise her with its transformation. Jane calls to tell Wilson that she is going to stay overnight in Greensboro because Anna cannot make up her mind about a wedding dress. Wilson day dreams about the kiss they shared earlier and thinks that perhaps things are changing for the better between them.
Wilson is overseeing the sweeping landscaping renovations at Noah's house. The neighbor, Harvey Wellington, a pastor and longtime friend, makes the remark that he is glad that the house is being tended to. He says, "the more special something is, the more people seem to take it for granted." Wilson knows that he has taken Jane and their love for each other, like the house, for granted too long. He later visits Noah at Creekside now that he is back from the hospital. They discuss the landscaping work being done at the house and the almost mythic rose garden Noah constructed for Allie early in their marriage, in the shape of five concentric hearts. The family believes that the rose garden was one big gift of love for Allie. Noah tells Wilson the real story. He made the first heart when their first child was born, and kept adding to it with each child. When one of their children died at age four, the garden made Allie too sad to look at; she even asked Noah to mow it down. He didn't act on the onetime request—he was not sure she really meant what she said. The rose garden lived on as a gift both beautiful and sad for Allie. Later that night, Wilson and Jane share a pizza just as they used to in their youth. Jane startles Wilson by asking him if he is having an affair. She is a bit bewildered by his recent expressions of love and wonders what his motive is. Wilson assures her that he is not having an affair. He adds that he wants to prepare a little anniversary surprise for her the next night because the day of their anniversary will be too busy with the wedding.
Wilson continues to oversee the renovation at Noah's house and anticipates the secret he has in store for Jane. The next night, Wilson posts a note on their front door telling Jane that a surprise awaits her inside. Jane enters their house, and Wilson has left candles, music, and little notes everywhere, leading her upstairs where he has left special bath oils and a new dress. The notes instruct her that after she gets ready for the evening, she will be blindfolded in a limousine that will pick her up and drive her to a destination where he will be waiting.
The limo takes Jane to Noah's house, where Wilson has prepared more surprises. Wilson lets her remove the blindfold for her to see, for the first time, the magnificence of Noah's renovated house and grounds. Jane is speechless. Wilson instructs Jane to go upstairs to her old room where another surprise awaits her. Wilson has put together an album consisting of pictures of the two of them; beneath each picture Wilson has written what he was thinking when each photo was taken. Jane comes downstairs, visibly moved. Jane tells Wilson how she remembers her parents always dancing in the kitchen. Wilson and Jane dance for awhile, then, moved by the romantic evening, go upstairs and make love.
The next day, Wilson and Jane are in town having lunch when they get a call from Jane's sister Kate that something has happened, and Noah is extremely upset. They go to Creekside to find out that the swan is gone. It is not clear whether Noah questions his belief that the swan is Allie in the first place, or if he thinks that the swan and therefore, Allie, has left him. After things settle down a bit and Kate leaves, Noah gives Jane and Wilson his copy of Leaves of Grass as an anniversary gift. Later that evening, Jane gives Wilson an anniversary gift of cooking lessons in Charleston. They agree to take them together.
The wedding day has finally arrived. The hired help and the family start arriving. Joseph pulls Wilson aside and tells him how surprised and delighted he is about Wilson's efforts to win back Jane's love in the past year. Joseph confesses to Wilson how upset Jane had been when she visited him in New York alone after the forgotten anniversary a year earlier. Consequently, Joseph only reluctantly helped Wilson with his anniversary gift to Jane. The wedding ceremony is about to begin. Anna comes down the stairs, not in her bridal gown, but in a bridesmaid dress, holding a veil behind her back. Now the real surprise is revealed—the wedding had been a surprise for Jane all along. Jane is the bride, not Anna, and this is the wedding Jane always wanted but never had. Wilson had been preparing the wedding for a year so that it would be a surprise. The amazing coincidences that a first-class caterer, musician, and photographer had all been available on such short notice were actually planned well in advance. After the wedding, Wilson finds Noah down at the river. The swan has found her way to the river right by the house, presumably to be with the family for the wedding. Wilson now believes that the swan is Allie.
Wilson concludes that a man can truly change if he really wants to. He is going to keep up his romantic gestures to show Jane how much he loves her every day, not just once a year.
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