Review of “Blue Roses” by Francis Hwang
Published in “The New Yorker” November 1, 2010.
Chinese mother feels that her children don’t appreciate her and take from her without giving in return. She becomes angry with her closest daughter when the daughter is unwilling to invite the mother’s widowed friend to Christmas dinner. The mother refuses to go to the dinner, causing a crisis in the family. She admits that the friend is difficult and has odd mannerisms. The friend uses the mother as a driver to go to the grocery store and later to go to the doctor. The friend refuses to go to the hospital as ordered by her doctor but the mother manipulates the friend into acquiescing and forces the friend’s absent daughter to come to the hospital.
Lin Fanghui is intelligent, somewhat self-aware, and helpful. She can also be petty, hold a grudge, be stubborn, and can tally up the wrongs and favors that have accumulated over the years. She feels under-appreciated, taken advantage of, and sometimes misunderstood by her children. This Christmas she takes a stand to make her point.
What drew me to this story is the difficult central character, Lin Fanghui. It’s easier to write about a good-hearted person in terrible circumstances or a person who has but a single flaw. It’s more challenging to have a protagonist that people might see as unsympathetic. And it’s even more interesting to write from the first person singular and to look the world from inside that character’s head, to be forced to listen to the complaints and petty reactions that run through that character’s mind. A Google search for this story returned a blog that discusses the stories in the New Yorker and a comment from a reader who found the whining unacceptable.
Some of the conflict is standard inter-generational dissonance and might occur between any mother and her grown children, but the manner in which it is expressed seems uniquely Chinese or at least Asian. From her arguments with her son, “When he doesn’t do what I ask, I tell him he comes from a bad egg.” The reader gets multiple explanations for the source of her Christmas grievance, from lifting her daughter’s skirts high above dirty public toilet seats, remembered to herself, to the master-to-servant attitude of her son in law relieving her from babysitting as explained to her husband. My favorite is the rambling, vague explanation she tries to give to her other daughter:
“I don’t understand why you’re so mad at her.”
“It seems a small thing to you. But not to me.”
“Don’t you think you’re blowing this out of proportion? Eileen would have invited your friend if she knew you’d react like this. She just didn’t think it was a big deal.”
“That’s what upsets me!”
“She never thinks how I feel. No big deal, right?”
Elizabeth gave an exasperated sigh.
“What I’d like to know is what nice thing has she done from me lately?”
Elizabeth reflected. “What about the sweater she gave you for your birthday?”
“I can always buy myself a sweater,” I said. “Why can’t she think bigger?”
“You mean something more expensive?”
“Your cousin doesn’t have money like Eileen, but she and her husband bought her father a used Mercedes. Your father and I were impressed. It’s not that I expect a used Mercedes from you. If fact don’t ever give a car that is used, O.K.? I’m just saying that there are some gifts that involve sacrifice, you see what I mean?”
Elizabeth brooded on this. “If we don’t give you extravagant gifts, it’s because we know you can always buy something better for yourself. So what’s the point?”
“I’m just saying the gesture would be nice. After all we’ve done for you kids. Do you have to pay back any student loans, like your friends? Do you see any other parents still paying their daughters’ rent?” Elizabeth pressed her lips together, her face darkening. “What I hate is that you all suffer from amnesia. If I give you a loan, you don’t pay it back. I have to remind you. It’s not that I care about the money. It’s the principle. Whenever I want something, I have to tell you. I’m sick of it. None of my children ever think or remember.”
A typical parent-to-child or children complaint perhaps. It’s a difficult complaint to try to convey and I like the way the author has Lin struggle with it. She starts with her feelings being disregarded, uses the example of the Mercedes, then clarifies that she doesn’t want a Mercedes, that it’s just an example (and not wanting a used car points out her own elitism), goes to a related issue of loans and financing (and apparently she does want the loans repaid or at least some acknowledgment of the debt), and then returns to the original overall point about being taken for granted and not being appreciated. She does succeed in conveying her the source of her unhappiness to Elizabeth well enough that Elizabeth reports this to the rest of the family at the Christmas dinner.
Lin has a childish belligerence (to her four year old granddaughter who has just stopped crying she says “I am sadder than you. Your mother is coming back in an hour. My mother has disappeared for good.”) and a cold stubbornness (she swerves around her husband and drives over the lawn, watching Eileen collapse to her knees as her mother escapes). She also has some degree of self-awareness. While driving her friend Wang she notes that “Before I could stop myself, I apologized as well”, and near the end of the story she reflects, “I found myself longing for the day when she would be well enough to vex me. Perhaps, in the end, we need these small daily irritants, a bit of sediment in our mouths, to keep life interesting.” Very Woody Allen-like and similar to his joke about eggs at the end of the movie “Annie Hall”. For me it’s a stretch to accept all these bristly traits and actions combined with the self-reflection. Somehow these truths need to be expressed and the alternatives are for the author to step outside and use the third person perspective or to have the truths slip out unintended. The author has chosen to let them be a part of the protagonist’s ability, but doing so leads me to the question of why can’t Lin see some of her other faults or why can’t she deal with them more effectively?
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Less interesting for me is the other part of the story that focuses on the friendship with Wang Peisan. This story has more bulk, more words than the part of the story about the family but it’s difficult for me to see what is interesting about Wang or about the friendship. Wang does offer words of appreciation that Lin does not receive from her children but she also demands more effort and time. At one point Lin vows never to take Wang shopping again; “Though Wang Peisan was a small woman, I could not handle her.”
She feels sympathy for the small widow who, like herself, has a daughter that does not seem to appreciate her. But beyond sympathy, and perhaps an Asian sense of duty, I don’t get a sense of what keeps Lin in Wang’s life. Maybe she’s trading one set of irritants for another? Or adding another set because the first one has been cleansed somewhat and is becoming a smaller part of her life as her children grow away from her? She says of her husband’s dislike of Wang “Like everyone else, he thought Wang Peisan a terrible nuisance, but his saying that made me think that he did not have a good heart.” Perhaps a “good heart” is high on Lin’s list of moral imperatives. And somewhere there is a connection between the fairy tales that Wang wanted to write, with Wang’s interest in dreams, and with Lin’s lack of interest in her own dreams which changes at the very end, but the point of this thread eludes me.
Structurally the storyline with Wang is useful. It provides a second theme that relates to the first while providing more background on Lin. Hwang switches back and forth between the two stories, working them like an ABAB structure in a piece of music, ending with a coda which also goes AB. Like second themes in music this story provides contrast and a chance to create some space in the presentation of the main theme by interrupting it momentarily.
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Later edit: Something that I realized later is how Lin’s intelligence is necessary for Hwang to be able to write in the first person. If Lin is not intelligent and self aware to some degree, then Hwang, writing from behind Lin’s mind, cannot point out important information because the central character would be oblivious. This makes me think of Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” where the central character “should know better” and eventually does have a revelation. Still, having the central character be aware enough to note relevant events and still be unable to deal with some of her shortcomings leaves a bit of a gap, for me at least.