With an unflinching eye, Oates charts the surprising ways in which the world we think we know can unexpectedly reveal its darker contours. From the title story, which maps the friendship between two beautiful and mysteriously doomed young women in 1940s Los Angeles – Elizabeth Short, known as the ‘Black Dahlia,’ victim of a long-unsolved and particularly brutal murder, and her roommate Norma Jeane Baker, soon to become Marilyn Monroe, to the tale of the wife of a well-to-do businessman who is ravished by, and elopes with, a lover who is a hyena – Black Dahlia & White Rose explores the commingling of sexual love and violence, the tumult of family life, and resonates with Oates’ predilection for dark humor and her gift for voice.
As the name of the collection and synopsis of the collection suggest, this collection of short stories with tragic endings or frightening scenarios. And there’s no doubt that Joyce Carol Oates is the literary queen of giving her readers heightened fear and anxiety in her stories. The title story Black Dahlia and White Rose is about the true murder and investigation of Elizabeth (Betty) Short in 1947. Joyce Carol Oates writes her story from the points of view of Betty, her roommate was Norma Jeane Baker (soon-to-be Marilyn Monroe), and their photographer K. Keinhardt. Each telling their perception of Betty, her life, her ambitions and even her murder.
How did they get their nicknames? Betty received her nickname posthumously, but Joyce Carol Oates writes it differently:
Betty was the dark-haired beauty—THE BLACK DAHLIA. Norma Jeane was THE WHITE ROSE to me (K. Keinhardt)—in secret—her skin like white-rose-petals & face like a china doll’s.
Joyce Carol Oates’ “unofficial investigation” covers backgrounds on both girls–fatherless and striving for male approval and fame, and the male perspective on both girls’ beauty. “Fatherless” seemed to be a theme that carried through the next two stories, “I.D.”–about a girl whose mother disappears for weekends at a time or works a nightshift, but hasn’t been seen for a few days–and “Deceit”–about a woman who is called in to her daughter’s school for suspicion of physically harming her daughter who is, unbeknownst to the woman, covered in bruises.
The remainder of the collection reflects on a “missing person” or “a new life without” theme as well, and the stories are varied in how they cover the topic–a divorced man with his new family, a widowed woman who uses the day of her anniversary to teach literature in a prison, a man whose wife has gone missing. The premises of the stories were great, but I think it was the execution of the narrators that didn’t appeal to me.
As an audiobook, it was actually really cool to have one male and two female narrators for each of the characters in “Black Dahlia & White Rose” (Betty Short, Marilyn Monroe and K. Keinhardt — “K.K.”). Having that variety of narrators was great for the first few stories too, but once the two females read stories back to back (which was often), I lost track of when one story ended and when another began before I realized what had happened. As a result, I was unfulfilled by the ending of a few stories. Perhaps the audiobook version of this collection was a bad idea, and it might be a while before I decide to try to commit to this title again.
If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that I absolutely love Joyce Carol Oates. It’s a life mission to either own and/or read all of her books (space permitting, of course). However, even if she is my auto-buy author, I have to keep in mind that not every book my favorite author writes is going to be great. Even if she’s written over 130 books, it’s bound to happen at some point I’m not going to like at least one of her books in her career. And unfortunately, Black Dahlia & White Rose was it for me.
Books from Local Library