The Chrysanthemum Garden is a novel about two people, so real, so authentic, so totally realized that as we watch them fall in love we feel we are finally being permitted to enter the magic kingdom of human heart. Morna Franklin and Denison McArdle are not adolescent, romantic stick figures, but mature humans who bear the scars, defeats, resignation and triumphs, that come from having lived full lives. But neither is, nor could ever be, prepared for the moment of unexpected grace that wrenches them from the lives they assumed they would always live. She is in her fifties, a mother and grandmother. He is seventy, a great American poet, a widower waiting benignly for his life to wind down. The novel is the story of their life together, a novel so transcendently beautiful that reading it is like an act of liberation and deliverance, from the cares of this life and from the fears of aging and death.
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THE CHRYSANTHEM GARDEN by Joseph Cowley Willa Cather once observed that “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” In his touching first novel, The Chrysanthemum Garden, Joseph Cowley distinguishes himself not for disproving Ms. Cather’s truism, but for affirming it in a virtuoso display of delicate insight and deceptively simple storytelling. The tale he offers boils down to boy-meets-girl, then lives on in some permutation of happily ever after. Boy and girl have both, as the novel opens, attained what might tactfully be called deep middle age, yet Mr. Cowley depicts their romance as a voyage of discovery every bit as consuming and fresh as the affaires de Coeur that regularly afflict adolescents in residence, youthful public figures, and once and future kings. From Kremer vs. Kremer back beyond Nora vs. Torvald, memorable women in literature have forsaken apparent security to seek the fortunes of their souls. In The Chrysanthemum Garden, Morna Franklin raised a family, borne loss, and lived out nearly sixty years of a comfortable married life before she reared up, one day, and “walked out of her home in Scarsdale and left her husband scowling down into his morning bowl of Shredded Wheat” At last, and not at all easily, Morna has determined she refuses to succumb to the undifferentiated malaise that sends her prowling through her house alone in the midnight hours. She will squander no further energy in the expensive process of resentment. Hopeful that she will be able to find, or manufacture, a direction for herself, Morna enrolls in a twice-weekly poetry course at the New School in Manhattan. She starts out as a commuter, and realizes before long that her exit from the velvet shackles of suburbia must entail more than a symbolic departure. Advancing from a part-time pied à terre to a full-time life outside her former world, Morna cultivates a breed of passionate courage that she never dared test at twenty or thirty. Her steady emergence contains Mr. Cowley’s confident theme: In the great cosmic lottery it’s never too late for another chance at passion and progress, if only one dares the named and nameless risks. Morna finds an increasingly significant motivation in the inspiration of the poet who teaches her course. Denison McArdle, 70 years old and widowed seven years from a stormy but solid marriage when Morna enters his life, wears celebrity well. He is vastly renowned in his art, but good-naturedly unimpressed with his own stature. The world labels him a genuine artist. More importantly, he is a genuine human being. Morna grows increasingly attuned to “Denny’s” vibrant presence and special vision. “By the end of May,” Mr. Cowley tells us, “at the time of their last poetry reading, in Central Park, where they sat on blankets on the grass eating out of picnic baskets and sharing their poems on a Saturday afternoon, she knew she was in love.” Shortly thereafter, Morna and Denny embark upon a love affair and form a household that will fill the dozen or so years until his death. Morna emerges in the end as a saddened but tempered woman, permanently enriched for having gambled security to gain intimacy. By choosing with infinite care between what he economically reveals and what he leaves unsaid, the author describes volumes. In a single, terse paragraph, for example, he paints whole decades of Morna’s life and marriage: “A