Book Review: What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr
By Janet WebbOctober 9, 2019
What Rose Forgot is a wild and crazy ride. Rose Dennis, born in 1952, would undoubtedly appreciate the appropriation of Steve Martin’s signature phrase. Not that there’s anything funny about Dennis’s predicament. She’s on the lam from somewhere—she’s not sure where—clad in a hospital gown and she’s dehydrated and delirious. Perhaps she’s dreaming: “I’ve fallen asleep meditating, she thinks.”
Rose has had many dreams where she knows she is dreaming. So many, she has devised a surefire test. When Rose is dreaming, she can fly. Letting go of the tree, she raises skeletal mottled arms to the sky.
Rose cannot fly.
She’s back on her knees, sticks and leaves pricking her bare legs.
Two men in white coats “burst out from an arch of trees a hundred yards away,” and chivvy Rose back from whence she came.
A discreet sign bolted to the brick reads LONGWOOD MEMORY CARE UNIT.
Two uninformed men and four women, one in pale green scrubs, are standing on the sidewalk as if waiting for the delivery of Rose.
What a dehumanizing way to describe a person. It’s fascinating to eavesdrop on Rose’s mental machinations: she overhears her captors talking and realizes they want her incapacitated. It was a bout of flu that cleaned her system of mind-altering meds. “I am confused and disoriented,” Rose whispers,” to herself. She’ll need her wits around her to escape from her locked psycho ward upscale memory care unit.
Right intention: Get out.
Rose had gotten out. Now she is back in.
She’s done it once and she can do it again. Taking pills impairs Rose’s ability to be coherent, so she hoards her pills and formulates an exit strategy: from The Great Escape to The Shawshank Redemption, a clever escape plot never goes out of style. Rose steals an entry keycard from an attendant, pieces together a disguise, doctors the night nurse’s can of cola with the contents of her pill stash and off she goes: “her prison door hisses open.”
It’s hard to navigate the suburbs of Charlotte in the dark but although her physical strength is waning, Rose makes her way to her granddaughter’s backyard playhouse. Miraculously, Melanie (Mel) appears. Rose’s immediate need is for water, then safety, lest she be dragged back to Longwood.
“Grasshopper,” she says wearily, “this isn’t fair to you, I know that, and if it is too hard, don’t do it—I’ll understand—but I’d like some time to get myself together while I can still find the pieces. Could this be our secret, at least for a day or two?”
Mel is cautious but willing to extend a little rope to her beloved grandmother. She tells Rose she’ll call her an Uber to take her home. Now Rose is worried that Mel will have to lie on her behalf.
“Oh, I won’t mind lying to the police,” Mel says.
Rose groans. She is such a horrible grandmother.
“I probably won’t have to,” Melanie says kindly. “I just won’t be available. Nobody much cares what a thirteen-year-old thinks anyway. Ageism, hello!
“Tell me about it.” Rose sighs. “Thank you.”
“You’ll owe me big-time,” Melanie says, and grins impishly.
Rose is damn impressive when it comes to thinking on her feet. How refreshing that a sixty-eighty-year-old woman is her own savior. Although she’s no Rambo: Rose knows she needs help. Mel has her back but who else? Back at home, Rose spots her iPod and iPad. She sees pictures of two little girls on her device and remembers she has a sister. Her beloved sister Marion.
Rose calls Marion and they talk for hours. Marion suggests that Rose smarten herself up and return on her own recognizance to the Longwood facility (in order to prove that she’s not bonkers, nor suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s). Marion is a recluse but from within her sanctuary, surrounded by cats, she is a formidable computer hacker.
Marion doesn’t travel. She lives alone with seventeen cats, four computers, two laptops, an iPad, and security cameras in every room. Rose knows she will not leave her home.
Even from a distance, Marion’s cautious, helpful advice, bolsters Rose’s nerves. Until Rose hears someone break into her house. It’s no ordinary burglar: the man is trying to kill her! He’s a “great, lumpish, ape-like creature.”
His gut is a beer belly. He oofs as he bends over to get his head outside the window. On his feet are deck shoes. They offend Rose. A man ought not to set about murdering a person while wearing deck shoes. It is as if he doesn’t take killing her seriously.
If disdain is a weapon, Rose has that in spades. She’s weak though: “before the proverbial hit the fan, she remembers, she did three sets of ten men’s push-ups every night after yoga,” but now she’s operating on nerves and determination. She knows that “Longwood knows that without the red capsules, her mind has returned.”
Would she rather die than face going back into the control of people who have an interest in maintaining her dementia?
Darn tootin’ she would.
The porcine assassin and Rose are mano a mano on the deck. He has a knife clenched in his teeth. “Folding down over the ridgeline in an extreme Child’s Pose that would impress her yoga instructor, Rose reaches out, grabs the haft, and jerks.” Never discount muscle memory!
So much for Marion’s plan: if someone wants her dead, Rose is not going to show up at Longwood, or at least not in her current feeble, frail incarnation. She doesn’t know who is trying to kill her nor who she can trust.
Nevada Barr shatters clichés in What Rose Forgot. Society overlooks old women and teenage girls, and heaps scorn on agoraphobic spinsters and their cats. But Rose, Mel, and Marion are the A-Team, working collaboratively to figure out why Rose Dennis has a target on her back. It’s a page-turning, race-against-time thriller, unusual in many ways and the more enjoyable because of that.