Great stories are full of great characters. They seem full of life. They are memorable. They may complete jerks, but we sympathize with them on some level. Currently, I’m thinking of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry is rude, obscene, and disingenuous, but somehow likable. We’re able to see Larry in a way that makes us sympathize with him. It’s not that he’s a jerk, he’s just misinterpreted. Right?
In “Blue Roses” by Frances Hwang, we are placed into the head of Lin Fanghui, the narrator, as she navigates her ailing friend’s demise and Lin Fanghui’s own alienation of her children during Christmas. Lin Fanghui is terrible. She emotionally abuses everyone in her family, including her husband. Sure, she’ll do her duty as a mother and a wife, but it comes with the price of her needing constant compensation, which she feels is never fully given.
Lin Fanghui is friends with another older woman named Wang Peisan. In comparison to Lin Fanghui, Wang Peisan is even worse. There seems to be nothing redeemable about her as she manipulates and controls everyone. Perhaps, that’s the point of Wang Peisan. She’s there to show the reader who Lin Fanghui could become, and for Lin Fanghui she provides a balance. At least I’m not as terrible as Peisan, Lin Fanghui may think.
Themes that run through this story are parenthood, aging, depression, and loneliness. But what will the reader take away from the story? Both of the characters are not only despicable, they fall into the pit of being unsympathetic. What happens when characters slide toward being unsympathetic? Readers stop caring. Ultimately, “Blue Roses” doesn’t work for me, because Frances Hwang has created characters that turn me off completely. There is nothing redeeming about them. There is nothing likable about them. The story closes with Wang Peisan sick and most likely dying in a hospital while Lin Fanghui visits her. They don’t really have much to say to one another, and they’re not going to change. Perhaps, Lin Fanghui won’t become as bad as Wang Peisan, but she’s still going to be an overbearing jerk. We are shut out of their friendship as Lin Fanghui, “closed my eyes for a moment and then tried to describe to her what I saw.”
The ending shows us two horrible people who have found each other and constructed something they call friendship. The reader is outside of whatever the two women have found. The characters who are sympathetic are all periphery. The reader identifies with them, and the story is spent riding out wave after wave of abuse, hoping the end is near.
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