It's not a pretty story, but it's one that people seem to want to keep hearing about.
I'm talking about the real-life Gypsy Rose Blanchard case, which "Darling Rose Gold," a debut novel by Stephanie Wrobel, draws upon for its premise and for the twisted mother-daughter relationship at its core. Wrobel's suspense story is the latest retelling of the Blanchard case.
If you've seen the HBO documentary "Mommy Dead and Dearest," the Lifetime movie "Love You to Death" or the Hulu true-crime series "The Act," you know the basic grim facts. For those who haven't heard about the case, here's a quick summary: Gypsy Rose Blanchard was born in 1991 and, soon after, she was diagnosed with sleep apnea. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Gypsy Rose accrued a staggering collection of diseases and chronic conditions, including leukemia, asthma, muscular dystrophy and impaired mental capacity because of what her devoted mother, Dee Dee, claimed was a premature birth.
"Claimed" is the key word here, because Gypsy Rose was eventually determined to be a victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy: Dee Dee was accused of exaggerating or fabricating most of her daughter's disabilities.
In 2015, Missouri sheriffs discovered Dee Dee's body in her house. She'd been stabbed to death days earlier. It turned out that Gypsy Rose, who had been chafing at her mother's control, persuaded her boyfriend (whom she'd met online on a Christian dating site) to murder her mother. The boyfriend was convicted of first-degree murder, and Gypsy Rose is serving a sentence of 10 years for second-degree murder.
As I said, it's not a pretty story.
"Darling Rose Gold" sticks close to some of these details and fancifully departs from others. When the novel opens, Dee Dee Blanchard, renamed "Patty Watts," is being released from prison after serving five years for abusing her daughter, "Gypsy Rose." In Wrobel's reimagining, Patty is a tough and somewhat comical maniac, akin to the more genial incarnations of the Riddler, as portrayed by Jim Carrey and Frank Gorshin. In fact, Patty even sounds a little like the classic Batman villain when she introduces herself (by way of presenting her version the case) to readers:
"My daughter didn't have to testify against me. She chose to.
"It's Rose Gold's fault I went to prison, but she's not the only one to blame. If we're pointing fingers, mine are aimed at the prosecutor and his overactive imagination, the gullible jury, and the bloodthirsty reporters. …
"What they wanted was a story.
"(Get out your popcorn and Buncha Crunch, because boy, did they write one) . …
"Riddle me this: if I spent almost two decades abusing my daughter, why did she offer to pick me up today?"
Yes, you read that right: At the outset of this novel, Rose Gold (who's now a single mother herself of a baby boy) is picking up the mother who grievously mistreated her for almost two decades and taking Patty into the home she's recently bought. What ensues — in alternating chapters narrated by Patty and Rose Gold — is a nasty cat-and-mouse game in which victim and victimizer keep changing places. Wrobel's suspense novel has much the same campy feel as that 1960s cult psychodrama "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" starring grande dames Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Readers familiar with that film will understand what I mean when I say that Wrobel goes "full parakeet" in some of the grotesque scenes scattered throughout "Darling Rose Gold."
The chapter-by-chapter choreography of this creeper is ingenious: Patty, at first, is the obvious heavy of the story, while Rose Gold — friendless and plugging away at a menial job at Gadget World to support herself and save up for the massive dental work she'll need to repair teeth ravaged by years of malnutrition — is the traumatized survivor. But, before long, Wrobel begins subtly destabilizing readers' sympathies. Why has Rose Gold used her dental savings to buy the derelict house where Patty grew up and endured abuse herself as a child? Why has Rose Gold painted "two giant lifelike eyes … blue and watery" above the narrow guest room bed where Patty is to sleep? And, emotionally needy as she understandably is, why won't Rose Gold get the message that her newly resurfaced, long-lost father feels reluctant about instantly absorbing her into his family?
"Darling Rose Gold" is a maelstrom of a suspense story through which mental illness, maternal meshugas and vengeful rage swirl unchecked. Over-the-top is an adjective that barely does this tale justice; but, then again, the real-life story on which it's based is even more distastefully baroque.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air."