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Story Review: The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World by Patricia Highsmith

The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World by Patricia Highsmith

The Trouble with Mrs. Blynn, the Trouble with the World is about the dying Mrs. Palmer and the last few concerns that she has in mind. She has leukemia and she sends a not so urgent telegram to her son even though she knows that she could die anytime soon. She has no friends and her only company is Elsie, the household help whom she wants to talk to but cannot because she thinks Elsie is not intelligent. And she has Mrs. Blynn, the nurse who administers her afternoon injections and the last person that she will ever see as she closes her eyes at the moment of her death.

Who is Mrs. Blynn? She is middle-aged widow who deeply reveres the memory of her husband who died a decade ago. But she is nosy and snooty. She has tendency to order people around but despite this, she is highly regarded in the town. She has a cold and unsympathetic manner of sticking needles in Mrs. Palmer’s flesh, as if this were a futile act that she’s forced to deal with, a mundane thing that lead to the inevitable.

The conflicts in Mrs. Blynn’s character is pushed to an extreme when she asks about the amethyst pin that Mrs. Palmer has. She obviously covets it, and this concerns Mrs. Palmer. The old woman decides to hide it inside her jewelry box so that her son could have it. Then she changes her mind and decides to give it to Elsie, who declines it. Then she she holds on to it until she dies.

What interests me in this story is the train of thoughts that she has when her life is ebbing away from her. Why concern herself with material things when she cannot take them with her? Why bother over the pin when she can never know if it makes it to her son? Why does the impulse of goodwill come too late?

The prose is readable (easy to listen to, in my case), although I think this is affected by the notion that I have of the author. One would expect a plotty, twisty story from someone who’s quite popular with thrillers. One would almost expect Mrs. Blynn to perform a murderous act just to get her hands on the amethyst pin. One might suppose that she’s evil, but is she? Or is Mrs. Palmer just being too judgmental? For all we know, Mrs. Blynn is just making small talk with the pin as the subject, for probably it’s the only way she knows of talking to patients. She has had a hundred encounters with dying patients. This could drain one’s capacity for sympathizing, and perhaps for her, sympathy for the dying has become pointless.

Of course, one would still be preoccupied with the amethyst pin. Who is going to have it? Is it too late, just as most things in life are? And does it matter?

Listen to Yiyun Li reading this story at The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


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