- - Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Stephanie Wrobel begins “Darling Rose Gold” with crucial information from Patty Watts, one of the two protagonists. 

“My daughter didn’t have to testify against me. She chose to. It’s Rose Gold’s fault I went to prison.”

Patty also implicates “the prosecutor and his overactive imagination, the gullible jury, and the blood-thirsty reporters … What they wanted was a story.”

That story is what “Darling Rose Gold” uncovers in alternating chapters told by Patty and her daughter Rose Gold

Patty begins with her release from a five-year sentence for abusing Rose Gold. Her abuse was not beatings such as those she herself received in childhood, but systematic poisoning that made her daughter sick, dependent on a feeding tube, and skeletally thin so she needed a wheelchair.

Most significantly, she took her to constant visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. Here Patty was able to show off both her maternal devotion and her expertise as a certified nursing assistant, often prompting doctors to additional procedures and treatments. 

Praised by an emergency-room physician as doing a “terrific job” with an ailing child, she says, “The old familiar warmth starts in my chest and spreads across my body like an electric blanket.”

This kudos is what she has sought by dosing Rose Gold with ipecac, which causes vomiting — the symptom Patty used to justify an array of diagnoses and treatments.

As well as vomiting, Rose Gold suffered baldness because Patty claimed a shorn head looked better than one with clumps of missing hair, rotting yellow snaggle-teeth discolored from years of throwing up stomach acid, and home-schooling because her physical problems made her the butt of bullies at school.

While her mother was in prison, teenage Rose Gold started eating and let her hair grow, so when Patty is released, she is holding down a job as a cashier and saving money so she can fix her teeth that are her most disfiguring feature. 

Clearly Rose Gold has every excuse to avoid her newly released mother, yet she takes her in. Indeed, she has spent the savings for dental work on the deposit on a house for that very purpose, explaining to horrified neighbors that after all Patty is her mother and deserves forgiveness.

But Rose Gold hasn’t forgiven her. She wants revenge.

In the chapters she narrates we learn of her efforts to connect with other people, and see her resentments flare when she is spurned. But for all her anger at the way she’s been treated, does she have the skills to out-maneuver her mother?

The chapters Patty narrates suggest that Rose Gold is unlikely to succeed. Patty has no regrets for what she did to her, and is determined to again win the upper hand in their relationship. She’s a practiced plotter and unabashed liar. Will Rose Gold — now 23 — fall for her tricks and deceits again?  Their clash of wills powers the novel. 

Stephanie Wrobel manages the tales of both women artfully. She shows the results of Patty’s abuse, not only on Rose Gold’s physical state but also in her lack of social skills that mean her desperate efforts to build relationships with other people are heart-wringing failures.

She also sketches the terrors of Patty’s young life, and carefully maps the series of deceptions that enabled her to convert her perfectly healthy child into a sickly wraith.

In this process she garnered pity and praise from her neighbors, and that’s exactly what she needs because she is suffering from Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, a psychiatric disorder that impels a mother to make her child ill and to invent or exaggerate symptoms to satisfy her own narcissistic need for attention.

Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy is so rare that many readers may not have heard of it. Nonetheless the author does not define it per se in the novel. Nor does she reference the similar well-publicized 2015 case of Gypsy Rose and her mother Dee Dee Blanchard, which was the subject of a trial in Missouri and the 2017 HBO documentary, “Mommy Dead and Dearest.”

These are revealing omissions. The lack of background information focuses all attention on the dynamic of Rose Gold and her mother. Readers know that each is plotting, so the novel must succeed or fail on the effectiveness of the author’s account of their battle.  

Mostly it succeeds because such a starkly drawn competition holds attention. In retrospect, readers might question how Rose Gold managed to afford long road trips and a house deposit on cashier’s wages, but while reading the book the clash of two powerfully motivated women will distract from such mundanities and speed them on to the satisfying conclusion.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Stephanie Wrobel

Berkley, $27, 320 pages

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