The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano

The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano

by Donna Freitas

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Overview

A deeply moving novel about a woman who thought she never wanted to be a motherand the many ways that life can surprise us

An ode to possibility.The Washington Post

Rose Napolitano is fighting with her husband, Luke, about prenatal vitamins. She promised she’d take them, but didn’t. He promised before they got married that he’d never want children, but now he’s changed his mind. Their marriage has come to rest on this one question: Can Rose find it in herself to become a mother? Rose is a successful professor and academic. She's never wanted to have a child. The fight ends, and with it their marriage.

But then, Rose has a fight with Luke about the vitamins—again. This time the fight goes slightly differently, and so does Rose’s future as she grapples with whether she can indeed give up the one thing she thought she knew about herself. Can she reimagine her life in a completely new way? That reimagining plays out again and again in each of Rose’s nine lives, just as it does for each of us as we grow into adulthood. What are the consequences of our biggest choices? How would life change if we let go of our preconceived ideas of ourselves and became someone completely new? Rose Napolitano’s experience of choosing and then choosing again shows us in an utterly compelling way what it means, literally, to reinvent a life and, sometimes, become a different kind of woman than we ever imagined.

A stunning novel about love, loss, betrayal, divorce, death, a woman’s career and her identity, The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano is about finding one’s way into a future that wasn't the future one planned, and the ways that fate intercedes when we least expect it.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984880598
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/06/2021
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 100,597
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

This is Donna Freitas’s first adult novel. She is the author of Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention, as well as books for young adults. Donna has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and has appeared on NPR and the TODAY show. She’s on the faculty at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA program and lives in Brooklyn and Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt

M A R C H  2 , 2 0 0 8

Rose,  Life 3
 
 
She is beautiful.
I am awed by her perfection. The heady scent of her skin. “Addie,” I sigh. “Adelaide,” I try again, a faint whisper in the sterile air. “Adelaide Luz.”
I raise her little head to my nose and inhale, long and needy, ignor‑ ing the sharp pain in my abdomen. I smile as I admire the soft fuzz of her hair.
How I resisted having this little being in my arms! Before the preg‑ nancy and the birth, I would rage about the pressure to have a child— to Luke, to Mom, to Jill, to whoever would listen. The stranger next to me on the subway, the unsuspecting man on the sidewalk. I was just. So. Angry.
But now?
The snow falls in wet clumps against the windowpanes of the hos‑ pital room, everything around me shades of gray in dim light. I inch to the left, shift into a better position. The temperature drops and the snow turns papery, thick and dry like paste. She sleeps.
My eyes are hers.
“How could I not have wanted you?” I whisper into her tiny, curling ear, a pearly shell. “How could there be a life where you and I never met? If there is such a life, I wouldn’t want to live it.”
Her eyelids twitch, pale, veined, transparent, her nose and mouth and forehead scrunching.
“Did you hear what I said, sweet girl? You should only listen to the second part, about how your mother wouldn’t want a life without you. That’s all you need to know.”


One
 
A U G U S T  1 5 , 2 0 0 6

Rose,  Life 1
 
Luke is standing on my side of the bed. He never goes to my side of the bed. In his hand is a bottle of prenatal vitamins. He holds it up. He shakes it, a plastic rattle.
The sound is heavy and dull because it is full. This is the problem.
“You promised,” he says, even and slow. Uh‑oh. I am in trouble.
“Sometimes I forget to take them,” I admit.
He shakes the bottle again, a maraca in a minor key. “Sometimes?” The light through the curtains forms a halo around Luke’s upper body, the hand held high with the offending object outlined by the sun and glowing.
I am in the doorway of our room, on my way to pull clothes from the drawers and the closet. Mundane things. Underwear. Socks. A top and a pair of jeans. Like any other morning. I would have folded the clothing across one arm and carried it to the bathroom so I could shower and change. Instead I stop, cross my arms over my chest, the heart inside it mangled with hurt and anger. “Did you count them, Luke?” My question is a cold snap in the humid August air.
“So what if I did, Rose? What if I did count them? Can you blame me?”
I turn my back on him, go to open the long drawer that contains underwear, bras, slips, camisoles, riffle through my things, disrupting the order of my clothing, everything growing more and more out of control. My heart starts pounding.
“You promised me,” Luke says.
I grab a pair of my granniest underwear. I want to scream. “Like promises mean anything in this marriage.”
“That’s not fair.” “It’s perfectly fair.” “Rose—”
“So I didn’t take the pills! I don’t want a baby. I never wanted a baby and I don’t want one now and I won’t want one ever and you knew that before we got engaged! I told you a thousand times! I’ve told you a million times since!”
“You said you’d take the vitamins.”
“I said it to stop you from tormenting me.” Tears sting my eyes even as the blood inside me pulses with fury. “I said it so we could have a little peace in this apartment.”
“So you lied.”
I turn. The underwear falls from my hand as I march my way to the other side of the bed to confront my husband. “You swore you didn’t want a baby.”
“I changed my mind.”

“Right. Sure. No big deal.” I am tumbling down a hill, we are tum‑ bling, and I don’t know how to stop us from crashing. “You ‘changed your mind,’ but I’m the liar.”
“You said you’d try.”
“I said I’d take the vitamins. That’s all I said.” “You didn’t take them.”
“I took some.” “How many?”
“I don’t know. Unlike you, I didn’t count.”
Luke lowers the bottle, grips it between both hands, palm pressing down on the top, twisting, removing. He peers into the opening. “This bottle is full, Rose.” He looks up at me again, head shaking left, right, his disapproval pouring over me.
Who is this man before me, this man I love, this man I married?
I can barely see a resemblance between this person and the one who used to look at me like I was the only woman in the universe, like I was the meaning of his entire existence. I loved being that for Luke. I loved being his everything. He has always been my every‑ thing, this man with the soft, thoughtful gaze, with the friendliest, most open of smiles, this man I was certain I would love for the rest of my days on this earth.
The words But I love you, Luke are trapped moths banging around inside me, unable to find their way out.
Instead of disarming the bomb between us, in one swift motion I explode, swiping the bottle from Luke’s hand, my arm like a club, knocking it hard and high, the huge, oval pills becoming an arc of ugly green Skittles flung across the wood floor, scattering across the white sheets on the bed.

 
This action freezes both of us.
Luke’s lips are slightly parted, the sharp, clean edges of his front teeth visible. His eyes follow the trail of pills that have come to repre‑ sent the success or failure of this marriage, tiny buoys I was meant to ingest to keep our marriage afloat. I’ve spilled them, so now we are sinking. The only sound in the room is our breathing. Luke’s eyes are wide. Betrayed.
He thinks I am the one to betray him, that the proof lies in that stupid bottle of vitamins.
Why doesn’t he see that he is the one who betrayed me? That by changing his mind about children he’s only shown me that I am not worthy enough on my own?
Luke returns to life, walks to the corner of the room where the rolling bottle came to a stop. He bends down and picks it up. He plucks one vitamin from the floor, then another, pinching them be‑ tween his fingers before dropping them back inside. The pills clatter to the bottom of the bottle.
I stand there, watching as Luke bends and straightens, bends and straightens until every last prenatal vitamin is back in its rightful home, even those that went skittering under the bed. Luke has to lift the edge of the comforter to see them, has to lie down on the floor to retrieve them, arm straining.
When he’s finished, he looks at me, eyes full of accusation. “Why did I have to marry the one woman in the world who doesn’t want  a baby?”
I inhale sharply. There.
There it is. The thing that Luke’s been thinking forever, finally out in the open. Not the part about me not wanting a baby—that he’s known since the very beginning. It’s the clear ring of regret in his voice that makes me wince, the way he singles me out as unique and only in the worst of ways. We stare at each other. I wait for an apology that doesn’t come. My heart is pounding, my mind is racing from Luke’s question, piling my own on top of his. Why can’t I be just like every other woman who wants a baby? Why am I not? Why was I made this way?
Will this be the summary of my life at its end? Rose Napolitano: Never a mother.
Rose Napolitano: She didn’t want a baby.
Luke looks down at his feet. He picks up the bottle cap, closes it with a hard snap of the lid.
I reach for it—I reach for him.


Two
 
M A R C H 14 , 1998

Rose, Lives 1– 9
 
 
I don’t like having my picture taken. “Can you look up from your lap?”
My eyes, my head, my chin all refuse this request.
I’m the kind of person who runs from a camera, who hides behind whoever is next to me. Who puts up my hand to a lens if one shows up in my face. All the more reason I should not be here right now, having a portrait done in my cap and gown. What was I thinking?
“Um, Rose?”
I hear footsteps. A pair of navy‑blue sneakers, worn at the toe, laces ragged, appear on the floor in front of me. I take a big breath, let it out, and look up. The photographer is youngish, maybe my age, maybe a year or two older. His eyes blink, he bites his lip, his brow gathers.
“Sorry,” I say, hands fidgeting in my lap, fingers clasping and un‑ clasping. “I must be your worst subject ever.” I look away, off to the side, into the dim space beyond this bright, portrait setup where I sit, a gray background scrolled behind me. A row of boxes, the kind you buy if you are moving apartments, is stacked against the wall. A blue jacket is draped over the top, and a hockey stick lies on the floor along the baseboard. “This was a dumb idea,” I go on. “I just thought . . . I mean, I wanted . . . but then . . .”
“You wanted?” the photographer asks.
I don’t answer, I guess because I don’t really want to talk to this stranger about the inner workings of my heart. Besides, I’m still tak‑ ing in the junk piled everywhere. This must be the photographer’s house. He called it his “studio,” but it looks like he lives here. Or maybe just moved in.
“You wanted what?” he presses.
There’s something about the sound of his voice—gentle, patient— that makes me want to cry. This whole situation makes me want to cry. “I shouldn’t be here, I’m not good at this.” Now I do start to cry. “This is so embarrassing, I don’t like getting my picture taken. I’m sorry, I’m really, really sorry.” I cry harder, even as my inner feminist scolds me for so much apologizing.
The photographer—I can’t remember his name (Larry? No. Lou? Maybe.)—squats down next to my chair so we are almost at eye level. “Don’t worry. Lots of people hate having their picture taken. But are you crying because of the portrait, or because of something else?”
I study this man, the way his right knee presses through the rip in his jeans, the way his body sways ever so slightly in his crouch. How does he know that my reason for crying isn’t because of the picture? Has he also sensed that this is really about my parents, who some‑ times have a hard time understanding my choices? The woman I’ve become as an adult?
I cross my arms, press them into my body. This black gown with the velvet trim is thick and stiff. I bet it would stand on its own if I propped it just right. I pull the puffy beanie from my head and shake my hair out. It probably looks awful after sitting under the weight of this thing. The beanie is also velvet, the same blue as the gown. I was so excited when it came in the mail, the symbol of so many years of hard work, of the doctorate I am about to receive officially on gradu‑ ation day in May. My PhD in sociology, the one that will turn me from just Rose into Professor Napolitano. Doctor Napolitano.
“Who’s that picture of, over there?” I ask the photographer instead of answering his question. I point at it, extending my arm to the right.
Hanging on the wall above the stack of boxes is a large framed photo. It seems out of place, given the transitional state of everything else—fixed and permanent. Two people, a man and a woman, are sitting side by side on a porch, each one with a book open in front of them. The expressions on their faces are so alive, so engaged, like the words before them are the most exciting words ever written.
The photographer turns in the direction I point and chuckles. “Those are my parents. I took that when I was ten. I’d gotten my first real camera for my birthday that year. I was taking pictures of every‑ thing around me—flowers, blades of grass, the grain of the floorboards in the living room—very artsy.”
He turns back, looks at me and shrugs. Rolls his eyes at himself. They are green, with flecks of brown.
“I took a lot of excellent shots of the dog, too.”
I laugh a little. Some of the tension in me releases. “And so . . .?” “Yeah, right.” This time he doesn’t turn away. He keeps his gaze  on me. “Well, that photo—I was just arriving home. There was this monarch flying above the tall grass and I went running after it, trying to get the perfect shot.” He covers his eyes with his hands.
I find myself wanting to reach for them, to pull them away from his face, touch his smooth, olive skin. I don’t want him to be embar‑ rassed.
His hands fall back to his knees. He bobbles a little. “I was such a nerd. So there I was, grass plastered all over my jeans, tired, sweaty, and suddenly I looked up and saw my parents reading on the porch. And I could see something on their faces—something I had to cap‑ ture. I stopped, lifted my camera, and snapped a single photograph.” He smiles.
“That photograph?”
He stands again. He’s so tall. “Yup. It was the picture that made me want to become a photographer. When I saw it, I just knew. My mother had it framed, so I could always remember who I am and what I want to do, even when times get hard. It’s not easy starting out in this business.” He pats the camera that’s next to him on the floor with affection, and he shrugs again.
My head tilts, studying him. “Thank you for telling me that story.”
He nods. “Thank you for asking about that photograph.” He taps his foot. “Now it’s your turn.”
“My turn?”
“Tell me what the deal is. I told you a story, so now you have to tell me one, about why you’re really here.”
“Um.”
“Um, yes, well?”
“Um, okay. Fine.”
He crosses the room and retrieves a chair, parks it next to mine, and sits. Leans forward. “I’ve got plenty of time. You’re my only ap‑ pointment.” I breathe deeply. “Before I tell you, I have one more question.” “Sure, go ahead.”
My cheeks grow hot. I stand up, unzip my graduation robe before sitting back down. This thing is melting me. “It’s embarrassing.”
His eyebrows arch.
“I forgot your name, and since we are telling each other life stories, I figure we should probably be on a first‑name basis. I know it’s not Larry. But is it—Lou, maybe?”
He smiles again, laughs again—he has such a nice laugh, low, but rich, like he enjoys laughing, like he is easy to laugh. “Well, Rose Napolitano, my only appointment of the day, I agree that we should know each other’s names, and since I already know yours, you should also know mine.” He sticks out his hand and I take it.
I feel it across my skin, everywhere, a rush. “My name is Luke.”

Reading Group Guide

1. The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano takes up the question of whether to have children—with Rose insisting that it should be a question, even though people assume it is a given for women. How does this assumption affect a woman’s identity? Have you always assumed that you would have children?

2. Rose and Luke’s marriage hinges on a fight that repeats about something relatively small— vitamins. Why do you think the author chose a fight like this one to be the turning point in this marriage for everything that happens next? Have you ever had a fight like this with a partner?

3. Rose and Luke agreed before they got married to not have children. Is it unfair to Rose that Luke changed his mind? Or is it understandable—and forgivable—for a partner to change his or her mind about something as important as a baby?

4. Rose experiences a lot of rage during this novel—she is angry at her husband for changing his mind about having children. She is angry at the pressure to have a baby that she experiences from everyone around her. She is angry that people want her to put children over her career. Are you able to relate to Rose’s anger? Do you think it’s justified or does it bother you?

5. Rose’s life goes in nine different directions over the course of this novel. How does this structure affect your understanding of Rose? Is there one version of her life that you liked or related to the best? Why?

6. The novel is about the decision to have a child, but it is also about the choices we make in life in general. Besides the issue of children, what major life decisions have you made that affected all that came afterward? Looking back, are there different choices you wish you’d made that you didn’t? How would your life have looked if you had?

7. Rose does a lot of things that might make people feel uncomfortable—she resists having a baby, she has an affair while pregnant, she has an abortion. Did you feel that her actions were justified, or were there things that Rose did that you feel are unforgivable, no matter what? What would you have done in Rose’s position?

8. In the versions of Rose where she has a baby, she worries that because she had a child reluctantly, she’ll end up being a bad mother. What do you think of Rose as a mother?

9. This is a novel about whether to have a child, but it is also about marriage and divorce. In the end, no matter what Rose and Luke decide to do—have a baby or not—they can’t save their marriage. Why do you think the author made this choice? Were you rooting for Luke and Rose to work things out? Were you glad they ended up divorced?

10. This is not only a story about whether Rose will become a mother, it is also a story about Rose’s relationship with her own mother. What do you think of how Rose’s mother handled the child question with Rose? How was Rose’s mother an influence on her life?

11. Jill and Frankie both provide important support for Rose. How does Rose’s friendship with each woman differ? Is there a need for both women in every iteration of Rose’s life?

12. After Addie’s birth, Rose writes an essay about her complicated feelings toward motherhood. She is proud of her writing but struggles in deciding whether to publish it, and wonders what Addie will think when she’s old enough to read it. Do you think Rose should have published the essay? Or should she protect Addie from her feelings?

13. What did you think of how this story ended? Is there one version of Rose that you believe is the real Rose at the end? If so, which one? And who does Addie belong to?

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