The White Rose


By Jean Hanff Korelitz

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Passion, infidelity, social climbing, and one very special white rose weave a seductive narrative in this intelligent and tender novel.

At forty-eight, Marian Kahn, a professor of history at Columbia, has reached a comfortable perch. Married, wealthy, and the famed discoverer of the eighteenth-century adventuress, Lady Charlotte Wilcox, she ought to be content. Instead, she is horrified to find herself profoundly in love with twenty-six-year-old Oliver, the son of her eldest friend. When Marian’s cousin, the snobbish Barton, announces his engagement to Sophie, a graduate student in Marian’s department, Marian, Oliver, and Sophie find their lives woefully entangled, and their hearts turned in unfamiliar directions. All three of them will learn that love may seldom be straightforward, but it’s always a gift.

From the West Village to the Upper East Side, from the Hamptons to Millbrook, The White Rose is at once a nuanced and affectionate reimagining of Strauss’s beloved opera, Der Rosenkavalier, and a mesmerizing novel of our own time and place.


Act I


Right Now

In a bed at the center of the universe, a man is inside a woman he loves and they are moving, the bed is moving, the apartment is moving, the island of Manhattan is moving. There is a bowl of roses on the bedside table, fat white Boule de Neige—his own—chosen for her, and right off the truck, in the blue hours of the morning, this very morning. 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 through 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 word for it, thinks Marian, but how odd. Pounded into submission? Pounded into sweetness? She smiles, her eyes closed against his neck. How odd a way to change a thing from something hard to something soft, as she is most certainly being made into something soft, into a sweet soft thing, tight between him and the sheet. Sweet butter, for example. And what is that thing they pound into butter? Is it milk? Is it cream?

“Yes,” says Oliver, as if in confirmation, and she laughs into his soft dark hair.

And then, quite suddenly, he stops, and Marian has one of those moments, those rare and otherworldly moments, when a person can see herself as if she were not herself at all but someone else, looking at her, and she sees (greedy, not knowing how long it will last) through the scrim of all this ambient affection, and all this situational lust, herself: white shoulder, white breast, dark nipple, fleshy. And—much to her own surprise—she is absolutely ravishing. Possibly, she appraises, almost coolly, the most ravishing woman who ever breathed. How dull of her never to have seen it, for all these years of mirror scrutiny and social unease, all these years secure in her twin designations of smart and plain. What a waste, never to have noticed her own loveliness, for surely men have longed for her since she put away roller skates. Surely someone will again before they put her in the ground. But never before, nor ever again, as much as right now.

Oliver moves again. It is a relief and a sadness.

“Sweetheart,” he says, though not distinctly.

From far below, a howl of enraged traffic drifts into the open window, and it occurs to Marian that she is inhabiting the moment of her greatest happiness. Never mind the reasons she should not be in this particular bed with this particular man—and there are many reasons, and they are very good reasons. Right now, right now: in her life, in this bed, with Oliver and the roses and the noise and the dusk of a Manhattan day in October. And she sees, as if she were falling from her own open window, her life flash not back from the end nor forward from the beginning but both of these at once, the ends racing for the middle, for this moment at the heart of her life, so that in the instant before she smacks to the last of consciousness, this is what she will see: herself and him, inside, in motion, in love, and then she will know that her life was actually a good life, with sweetness and pounding and car horns and the smell of him, Oliver, who looks at her that very instant and says what he says, which is: “I love you.”

Marian, in answer, in restraint, shifts a bit. This has the unintended effect of letting him sink—incredibly—even deeper inside.

“I love you,” Oliver says again.

There is the faintest pause, barely longer than a breath. Then she says, “You don’t have to say that. You shouldn’t say that.” And she moves again. She is not uncomfortable, precisely. But she wants to move.

“Why not? I love you.” She hears impatience in his voice. He has decided to take offense at this, in the way only a man can do.

“You’ll know others,” she says, her eyes on the roses. “You’re young.”

“Marian,” Oliver says. “Marian. Look at me.”

Marian turns. She does not want to look at him. She wants to look at the wall of her bedroom, which is taking the full hit of October light on a plaster painted six times with ever deepening greens. Like—she remembers Marshall saying, once, between coats four and five—“living in a goddamned terrarium.” But perhaps that’s not untrue, she thinks now: her burrowing instinct. Earth mother, that’s her! Can you be an earth mother and childless?

The sheets rustle. He is waiting for his answer, the angry young man.

But she is losing herself, too. There is something dizzying in the smell of him, she thinks, shutting her eyes tight and feeling him move. The smell where neck meets shoulder, back of knee, palm of hand: clean and hard, talc and tough, the animal scent of purest desire. Either that or the bed is rocking, or the building, which is not so very tall, but they are nearly at the top of it, and the beguiling of those impatient cars and screeching brakes, or his hips, which, being narrow (or more likely her own being wide) fit so neatly between her thighs and move so cunningly, or…there’s that smell again, Marian thinks. She wants to stop what she is doing, what they are doing, and just smell him. Hold still! I must smell! And she imagines herself slipping him over and onto his belly, immobilizing him with a well-placed knee, and leaning over him, nose to ear, nose to nape.

And then, quite suddenly, she remembers the way Caroline used to smell Oliver’s hair when he was a little boy—with a whispered “My luvvie,” and a kiss to his chubby, little-boy cheek—and it’s all over.

How small? How young? Having no children of her own, she has never been good at ages. Did he wear diapers? My God! (“My luvvie…” She concentrates: little boy, curly brown hair, corduroy pants, a grubby stuffed bunny clutched in a grubby fist, and Caroline, her hair gamine short, worn short those early years in Greenwich, when? After college, certainly. After Marian left Yale? Before New York? The math? The math?) My God!

“Marian,” he is crooning, and though she is now too miserable to let go herself, she is also too generous to hinder him, so she follows him with her hips and sounds, making herself hollow (vessel, Marian thinks grimly, old gourd, old girl) until he is rattling, like a death rattle. Little-death rattle. This breaks her misery and actually makes her laugh, though only for the briefest instant.

“Sweetheart,” moans Oliver, misunderstanding. There is a mist of sweat between them.

Marian closes her eyes. She holds the moment even as it slips from her, even as he slips from her, but Oliver’s elation lingers.

“Mmm,” she offers, noncommittally. She knows he loves her. And the terrible thing is, she has never not wanted him to love her. Not from the first and never since. He keeps throwing her golden apples, and she keeps stopping to pick them up. She will never have enough apples, she thinks.

“I want to tell everyone,” Oliver says, avoiding eye contact.

“Oh?” She says evenly. “And who constitutes ‘everyone’?”

“Well,” he considers, “the Upper East Side. Upper East and Upper West. SoHo. The West Village. Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope. Those people who move to Brooklyn, they’re so defensive, aren’t they? And Hastings-on-Hudson, and Montclair. They get very offended if people leave them out. Also the New Haven Line, or else I could never go home again. The Hamptons, of course. Or should I say, ‘the East End’ like the rest of you reverse snobs?”

Marian thwacks him.

“I figure an ad in the Ascendant should cover it. I’d just put it in the shop ad, it wouldn’t cost me any more! It could say, The Calla Lilies Are in Bloom Again at The White Rose. Order some today. And incidentally I am in love with Marian Kahn. That’s right, the Marian Kahn…author of Lady Charlotte Wilcox! Maybe I should do a special: Get a free pink paperback with any order of pink callas over $50. What do you think?”

“I think that’s shocking.” She shakes her head, indulging him. “My book, a freebie for a lousy fifty bucks? Make it at least a hundred.”

“Writers,” he says, and rolls his eyes. “God, the ego of writers.”

Marian laughs. She hadn’t seen it right away, this Puckish side of him, not in their serious, panicky, and reverent first months, and not often since, but it’s there. Oliver, for the most part, is a serious man, broody even, given to silences and careful speech, but now, very occasionally, a streak of playfulness turns itself to the light, and when it does, Marian finds herself disinclined to resist. In what she stubbornly considers her real life, levity is rare and abandon pretty much unheard of. She loves to laugh with Oliver. She loves to feel her body against his, both of them shaking with laughter. So long as he doesn’t go too far.

“Besides,” he says now, “why not bring in the fans? I’m a small-business owner. I’m supposed to be keeping my eye on the bottom line.”

“And just how,” Marian says, “is invoking a woman who’s been dead two hundred years going to increase your sales of calla lilies?”

“Not her fans, silly,” says Oliver, nudging her shoulder with his forehead. “Your fans. You have fans.”

“I teach history, Oliver. She was a wild adventuress whose boyfriend wore a dress. She has fans.”

He winces. “I forgot about the dress. I wish you hadn’t reminded me.”

“Oh?” she says archly. “And what do you have against a man in a dress?”

“Well, nothing. I mean, to each his own. But honestly, what kind of self-respecting heterosexual guy goes around in a skirt?”

“Hmm,” she says. “How about a heterosexual guy whose vengeful wife and creditors would like nothing better than to find him and drag him back to England? She had the money, you know. The wife,” Marian says. “Besides, I think Charlotte liked it.”

Oliver turns to her. “You’re suggesting she was of the Sapphic persuasion?”

“Oh, don’t be so small-minded, Oliver! I’m suggesting that his willingness to masquerade was a sign of his devotion, which she would have liked. And maybe it was a little bit titillating as well.”

He makes a face. “Titillating.”

“Sure. Why not? You’re traveling through Europe with your ‘girlfriend.’ You walk down the street, sit out in some public place surrounded by your countrymen abroad, half of whom have heard the scandalous story of your elopement and are dying to know where you are…and in addition to getting away with it—which is quite an aphrodisiac itself—you know that under that dress is the man who’s going to take you back to the inn and make love to you.”

Oliver considers this. “And this scenario would be appealing to any woman.”

“I can see its appeal,” Marian tells him. “Beyond that, I make no assumptions.”

“Interesting,” he says. His hand materializes, softly, at her breast, which he kisses. “And I thought I knew all about you.”

Marian closes her eyes. “You know enough,” she says.

“Sometimes,” Oliver says with a grin, his face to her neck, “I try to remember how I used to think of you. When I first read your book. Or when my mom would talk about you. But I can’t. I can only see you as I see you now.”

“Now,” Marian says, echoing him. This is promising. Now, she can handle. Only then—the one in the past and the one in the future—gives her pause.

“But did I tell you?” He perks up, lifting his head and looking slyly at her. “I remembered you the other day.”

She frowns. “Remembered me? When?”

“I think it was you. You tell me. It was in Greenwich, in the backyard. I was with Billy Pastor, so that would have been sixth grade, because he pissed me off the next year and we were never friends after that. My mom and Henry were having a party. A cookout.”

“Big steaks,” she says, her voice thin.

“Right. All the men stood around all night drinking G and Ts and acting like they were total hunter-gatherers, not suits on the train. And there was this woman on a log, smoking a cigarette, in this wild dress with purple squiggles on it.”

Marian swallows. “Marimekko,” she says.


“Marimekko. From Finland. Very chic in the seventies. Never mind.”

“And it was you!” He crows in conclusion. “I remembered, the other night on the subway. Man, you were beautiful.”

“Yeah,” she says with a sigh. “I were.”

“You are.” He nudges her. “You’re not tricking me into that.”

She looks at him. “What were you doing looking at women when you were in sixth grade?”

“No.” Oliver laughs. “I wasn’t looking. It was just…just a filed memory, you know? And suddenly it came back to me.”

“On the subway.”

“Yeah, on the subway. I had you all over my fingers. It did something to my brain.”


“Oh,” he says, grinning. “Do that again. Blush again! From now on I’m going to leave your trail all over the IRT.”

“God, you would,” Marian says, repelled and elated.

“I would. I will,” he teases.

“You’re foul,” she says, laughing.

“But I clean up so nicely.”

“Foul. I’ll tell your mother.”

It has slipped. She hadn’t been thinking. Now it is out there, in the world, between them. His mother is her oldest friend—not her greatest, not her best friend, but certainly her oldest. An old girl’s oldest…that meant older than many, many. Caroline, who had white-blond hair and hated Miss Fokine’s dancing lessons as fiercely as Marian had, so so long ago. Marian will not tell Oliver’s mother. Marian is terrified of Oliver’s mother being told.

“Why not?” he says, his voice soft, but steely soft. “I’ll tell her myself. She has to know sometime.”

Marian shivers. And then, quite suddenly, she is on the point of tears. Where have they come from? Queued up behind the eyelids, they threaten to course like obedient soldiers, pouring from the trenches. “No, you wouldn’t. You can’t! Oliver, you can’t!”

But now he is sulking. He is off on his own stamp, his little performance piece: I am a man! I deserve! I’m entitled! Amazing how they all have this same soliloquy, in the end.

“Why shouldn’t I tell her? Why shouldn’t I tell everyone? What’s so terrible if I tell?”

“Tell,” Marian says, testing the word. At the tail of the L, a sudden hit of iron.

One of his arms slithers beneath her back, forcing her into an arch not quite comfortable, but she can live with it for a while. From across the apartment, she hears the purr of her office phone, and pictures it, for a moment, down the corridor, across the living room, and through the dining room, hooking around her kitchen with its cool Portuguese tiles and into the maid’s room that serves as her temple to Lady Charlotte Wilcox—the now very famous Lady Charlotte Wilcox—a sleek black phone with its little light blinking. She turns toward Oliver.

He is so lovely, she thinks again, and not only the part of him that she can see, nor even what she feels: the heat from him, the sweet frictions of his fingers and tongue. It’s his kindness, his goodness, the as yet undiscovered depths of his introspections and generosities. He is that sought-after thing: the good person, the good kid, the nice guy. That he is also passionate and smart and crushingly romantic seems almost beside the point. He is so good she dares not waste her time regretting that the situation is impossible. There will be time later for that, Marian thinks, desperate to clear even a wisp of preemptive sadness from her thoughts. Not now. Later. Not now.

“There’s nothing that has to be hidden here,” Oliver says. “I want everyone to know! I want your doorman to know. I want my customers to know! I want Pete at the Pink Teacup to know! Why not? Don’t I love you? Am I not of sound mind?”

“Yes,” she says, clutching at him. “I mean, no. Please.” Even to herself she sounds frantic. “Caroline would be devastated.”

“She’ll get over it. She’ll want me to be happy.”

“Not happy with me. Not happy with somebody her own age. And your father!”

“You mean,” he says coolly, “my stepfather.”

“Yes. Oliver, please think. This is wonderful. This is…I’m…” She shakes her head in pure frustration. “I’m so happy. This year…I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

“Missed it!” he says.

“Please, we need to keep it private. Oliver, promise me!”

“I won’t.” He crosses his arms in classic petulance. “You misunderstand me, Marian. This is for good with me. I mean, this is it, you know? So I want to be with you now and I want to be with you next year. I want to be with you in twenty years. I want to be with you in thirty years.”

The thought of herself in thirty years fills her with total horror. Reflexively, she pulls up the sheets.

“Too late,” he says smugly. “I’ve seen it.”

“And what about Marshall?” Marian says. “Doesn’t he have a say?”

“He had one,” Oliver says. “But he blew it. Besides, what’s he doing right now? He’d rather go off to some hut and shoot things than stay home and be with you.”

“Oliver. You know that’s not fair.” She swings her legs over the side of the bed, still holding the sheet across herself but prepared to make her getaway. “It’s a corporate retreat.”

“I’ve never understood the appeal of shooting things,” Oliver muses. “I think it’s an I’m-a-man-and-I’m-getting-old thing.”

Marian turns abruptly. “Well, perhaps when you’re getting old, you’ll understand it better.”

He recoils. “Marian.”

“Look. I’m sorry. But there’s no point attacking Marshall. His life is a very big house with lots of rooms and I don’t go into all of them. I’m happy with that.” She softens. “After all, I wouldn’t want him in all of my rooms, either, would I?”

Oliver, looking hard but not quite fierce, says nothing.

“But look how we’re wasting the moment, Oliver. We’re here. He’s there. When have we ever had this?”

“And what,” he says archly, “is this?”

The very question, thinks Marian. She would like him to be quiet now, and kiss her.

Marian considers him as if seeing him for the first time: man on the street, man through a restaurant window, man with flowers. There is a bloom on him that breaks her heart, and hair so richly brown it makes her think of fertile earth. Each cheek bears a brushstroke of pink, fading at the jaw line, as if he has just come in from a run on some spiky peak in New Hampshire. Oliver is twenty-six, elated, connected, utterly alive. She is forty-eight.

Again, that purr as the phone makes its transapartment statement. It can be nothing important enough to wrest her from her bed, her lover, even her petulant lover. Increasingly, these past months, it has been Lady Charlotte groupies on the line, wanting to touch her telephonic hem, so to speak, so much so it now seems to Marian that it’s time to change the number altogether. She holds her breath: the phone stops.

“I’m not trying to ruin things,” he says suddenly. “Believe me, that’s the last thing I want. But I want more, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t have it. And don’t—”

She has begun to speak, but he continues, “Don’t try to tell me it’s for me, because it isn’t. I’d marry you today if I could. I have no problem with the age thing, you know I don’t. I only mention it because I don’t want to ignore that it’s problematic for you.”

“I appreciate that,” Marian says carefully. “That’s very sensitive of you. But I’m asking you to do nothing for the moment. I just need some…stillness, I guess. I need to be still. Let’s give ourselves some time.” Please, she adds to herself, since she is not deluding herself about the rest of it.

“How much time?” Oliver says.

“Until…” Marian smiles, considering. “Until my rose is ready.”

He smiles. “You mean Lady Charlotte’s rose.”

“Of course.”

“A rose to order: pompous, overblown, and…what was the rest of it?”

“Pompous, overblown, and incapable of regret. That’s what I asked for, I seem to recall,” says Marian, laughing. “Surely that can’t be too difficult.”

“Difficult? It’s a serious challenge! But it might take time. I may not get it on the first try, you know.”

“Then I will wait,” Marian says, and they kiss.

Kissing him is her favorite thing. Kissing him is a thing she can do for hours. Oliver is a kisser of spectacular abilities, because he—alone, she believes, of his gender—has grasped the secret power of a kiss that does not necessarily lead to activities more genital. In other words, he can kiss for the sake of kissing, and a woman need not fear kissing him if she is not prepared to have sex immediately afterward. Marshall, it occurs to her even as she luxuriates in Oliver’s tongue, Oliver’s slightly overbitten front teeth, has never quite gleaned this fact, though she doesn’t hold it against him. Most men, after all, offered kisses as they might offer invitations to join a board: if you accepted, you’d better be prepared to come up with the goods. Marshall, a man of his generation (their generation, she reminds herself), had better things in mind than the meeting of lips, even the interplay of tongues: they were in it for fucking, pure and simple. Not that fucking didn’t have its place.

But Oliver…well, Oliver likes to kiss. Just now, indeed, he is holding her head, fingertips light on her jaw, lifting it, adjusting it, and her mouth is full of him and her thoughts are full of him, until she is almost helpless to keep herself from taking those demure above-the-shoulder hands and placing them decisively below the shoulder so that she can disprove her own point about kissing for kissing’s sake as quickly as possible. But before she can do that, there is a rude buzzing sound from the kitchen.

“Drat,” Marian says, pulling back.

“Oh, let it go,” says Oliver, his voice dreamy.

“Can’t.” She sits up. “It’s downstairs. The doorman knows I’m here.”

“So?” He leans back on his elbow. “If it’s a delivery he’ll take it.”

Marian gets out of bed, wrapping the sheet around herself like a lady on a Grecian urn. “Mr. Stern,” she informs him, “I live in this building. I have lived in this building for fourteen years. These doormen know far too much about my life, and I know virtually nothing about theirs. It is a strange and strained state of affairs that requires a highly choreographed dance involving all participants, and an inordinate amount of courtesy. And part of that courtesy, my young man, is answering the house phone when it buzzes.”

“Okay!” He puts up his hands and grins. “Answer! Answer!”

“Also random chats about the weather, cooing over baby pictures, superficial commentary about city politics, and a working knowledge of the championship prospects of major New York sports teams. I do not refrain from answering the house phone when he knows I’m upstairs and then expect the departure of my young and lovely friend in due course to pass without some salacious interest. Do you follow me?”

“Like a slave,” Oliver laughs. “Now hurry up and answer the phone.”

Marian does. She trails her sheet through the apartment, hearing the house phone sound its angry buzz a second time as she pads over the dark wooden floors. In the dining room her mail from yesterday is piled on the long oak table: magazines, catalogues, bills, a fat manila envelope of Charlotte reviews, from Italy this time, forwarded by another satisfied publisher. Also a box from Hammacher Schlemmer, another of Marshall’s gadgets to be fussed over, perplexed by, and ultimately consigned to molder with its gadget cousins in the hall closet. “All right!” she hisses to herself as the house phone blasts anew.

“I’m here!” She reaches the kitchen and snatches it up. “Sorry, Hector. I was working, didn’t hear the phone.”

“Mrs. Kahn? It’s Hector downstairs? I try to stop him.”

Marian goes cold. Her sheet slips in her grip. Irrationally, she thinks of Marshall up there in Nova Scotia. He is up there, isn’t he?

“What is it, Hector?”

“He coming up. He say he your cousin. He insist! He say you expecting him, he your cousin! Mr. Barton Ox he say he name is.”


Oh no. Oh no no no, Marian shakes her head. And it’s her own bloody fault: the idiot said he was coming to town and she’d failed to head him off. And now he’s here, on his way up. And she is in the kitchen holding a sheet over her breasts. And there is a naked man in her bed.

“Thank you, Hector!” Marian yelps. “That’s fine!” And she hangs up the phone and tears back to the bedroom, letting her sheet fall behind her on the rug. “Oh shit!” she is muttering. “Oh very much shit.”


  • "This excellent literary mystery [unfolds] with authentic detail in a rarified contemporary Manhattan. . . intriguing and beautiful."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

On Sale
Mar 17, 2015
Page Count
416 pages

Jean Hanff Korelitz

About the Author

Jean Hanff Korelitz was born and raised in New York and graduated from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She is the author of one book of poems, The Properties of Breath, and three previous novels, A Jury of Her Peers, The Sabbathday River, The Devil and Webster, and The White Rose, as well as a novel for children, Interference Powder. She has also published essays in the anthologies Modern Love and Because I Said So, and in the magazines Vogue, Real Simple, More, Newsweek, Organic Style, Travel and Leisure (Family), and others. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband (Irish poet Paul Muldoon, poetry editor at the New Yorker and Princeton poetry professor) and two children.

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