As enticing as a story about a manipulative mother who systematically poisons her daughter for years sounds, Stephanie Wrobel’s debut “Darling Rose Gold” manages to add an even more interesting wrinkle to this premise. It’s likely you’ve heard of Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP): A child’s caretaker fabricates illnesses to make the child seem sick. This form of child abuse is a focal point of depictions such as HBO’s documentary “Mommy Dead and Dearest” and Hulu’s “The Act.” For the most part, such narratives culminate with the revelation that leads to the caretaker’s arrest, but Wrobel states that her novel “begins where most novels … end — with the reveal upfront.” Patty Watts has been in prison for five years, and the novel begins with the day of her release, when her daughter, Rose Gold Watts, takes her in, seemingly forgiving her for poisoning her for eighteen years of her life. The reader experiences the present through Patty’s eyes, and the five years during which she’s imprisoned through Rose Gold’s eyes, and as these two narratives come closer to intertwining, the question remains: Why would Rose Gold give her mother shelter? Wrobel draws out the suspense of this question well, and the uncertainty of the answer carries much of the novel’s momentum. But not effectively enough. 

I was struck by how poor the novel’s attempt was at creating a compelling and realistic abusive mother, and when half the novel devolves into disengaging and inauthentic first-person narration, it’s difficult to take the story seriously. The concept of “show don’t tell” is nonexistent here. Patty is reduced to a hand-wringing caricature, comically thinking to herself about how she can manipulate her daughter again, “She’s not the only Watts capable of forming a plan … Now I know her weak spot: Adam,” (Rose Gold’s infant son). Patty’s character lacks nuance, her reasoning is simplistic. While MSBP is a real phenomenon, and there have certainly been individuals similar to Patty Watts, Wrobel’s novel lacks an awareness that such individuals are still human, and should still be portrayed as such. 

Regardless of the morality of a character’s actions, they should still be sincere. Patty is jarring, not because of the audacity of her actions, but because of the lack of depth underlying them. Few people explicitly declare and acknowledge the intentions, biases and motivations behind their every thought. Wrobel hamfistedly pushes the narrative that Patty Watts is one-dimensionally bitter, vengeful and hateful. Every other page, Patty pats herself on the back for pissing off the reader with her willful obstinance. All this being said, I had no problem with Patty’s actions themselves. Her character would have been better served by subtlety and humanity. She should have been a character who the reader wants to hate, but can’t quite hate because the reader understands her on some level.

In contrast to this, the eponymous character, Rose Gold, does add an intriguing level of depth to Wrobel’s debut. Ironically, Wrobel stated that her biggest difficulty in writing the novel was “getting Rose Gold’s voice right.” While Rose Gold suffers from some of the artless one-dimensionality Patty does, her character arc throughout the novel is both engaging and realistic. For the most part, satisfactory character development is hindered by the time spent on her mother’s character, and if more time were to be invested in her character (and less in her mother’s), the novel would be considerably better. Regardless of these caveats, Rose Gold effectively inspires pity and dread as the reader witnesses her embark on an increasingly toxic trajectory. Her struggle to break free from Patty’s legacy, even as Rose Gold is haunted by similarities she shares with her mother, is tragic and sobering. Though a few of the similarities Rose Gold begins to show are somewhat incongruent with the rest of her established character, she remains a grim reminder of how children of abuse struggle to break free long after they escape the abuser. Thus, much of the suspense is built upon whether or not Rose Gold is able to mature before her path is cemented.

One of “Darling Rose Gold’s” biggest strengths is the novelty of the premise. Though MSBP is commonly depicted in media, Wrobel portrays a stage of headline-making criminal cases that is often ignored: the aftermath. Her novel shows the unpleasant reality that, often, after justice is served, a happy ending isn’t a certainty, and recovery isn’t easy. The novel illustrates one of the many shortcomings of the punitive American criminal justice system, which often accounts for neither the victim’s nor the perpetrator’s welfare following the verdict. It’s a relevant issue to consider, and the intrigue of Rose Gold’s emotional transformation throughout the novel demonstrates the potential for such narratives. Though the novel’s third act was by far the strongest, with a page-turning climax and an unexpectedly somber ending, the same could have been accomplished if the novel had focused solely on Rose Gold’s recovery and struggles.

It’s unfortunate that so much of “Darling Rose Gold” was defined by what could have been, but the novel struggled to fully develop fruitful emotional connections with the reader, and what resulted was a so-so character study of a warring mother and daughter.

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