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Today we have the anonymously-authored Bubbles, widely considered one of the saddest stories in the fandom. Yes, someone looked at the wall-eyed background pony from a little girls' cartoon and thought to himself, "You know, I bet I can make that really depressing." Was he right? We'll see after the page break.
Impressions before reading: I read this a long time ago. I don't remember a lot about it, but I know I was disappointed in the ending. Since then, I've only heard good things about this story. I'm guessing that maybe I skimmed it when I first read it and missed something important--I've been known to do that on occasion (to put your minds at ease, I've been careful to give each fic I read for this blog my full attention--if I'm going to provide any sort of useful commentary, I kind of have to).
It has been said more than once that you can't read this story without crying. Well, I tear up easy, so that shouldn't be much of a challenge. Cathartic release, ho!
Zero-ish Spoiler Summary: The story of Derpy's foalhood, culminating in the day she got her cutie mark. Okay, it doesn't actually say that she got her cutie mark that day, but that's the implication. In case the [sad] tag wasn't enough of a warning, her youth was a bit rough.
Thoughts after reading: Nonstandard writing styles are always difficult to pull off. This fic uses third person present-tense limited perspective, but also tries to give readers a feel for Derpy's intellectual level through the level and style of narration. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, you'd be right 99% of the time.
This story is the 1%. In it, Derpy's POV is clear and her (lack of) understanding of situations which the reader comprehends far better than she does is always explicit. The rambling, run-on sentences serve a purpose here, and they hit that magic point between "Too mild to effectively show what they're intended to" and "Too extreme to leave a readable product." Many stories go overboard and become incomprehensible when trying to render a nonstandard voice, but this fic walks that delicate line perfectly.
In horror, it's generally understood that the more you can leave to the audience's imagination, the scarier something will be. This is often cited as the reason why Jaws is so much better than its sequels, and (on a pony-related note) why Cupcakes is generally considered disgusting rather than actually frightening. In this fic, the author uses the same approach to evoke sadness rather than terror, to great effect. The story strictly confines itself to Derpy's POV, and Derpy doesn't realize what's actually happening most of the time. This leaves the reader to extrapolate what's actually going on, resulting in a rarity among fanfiction: a story that makes you stop and think.
The brevity of this story is another point in its favor. By confining itself to only the high(low)lights of Derpy's childhood, it gives a sense of disjointedness and abruptness which neatly mirror the intended effect of the overall writing style. On every level, this fic tries to give the reader a glimpse into Derpy's mind. Again I feel the need to point out how hard this is to pull off--many a lackluster fanfic, and even some otherwise good ones, have been rightly panned for skipping over important setup and leaving the reader confused.
Since we've talked about 'Derpy's mind' a bit, I should point out that this fic belongs to the "Derpy Hooves has significant mental/physical disadvantages" school of character interpretation. Personally, I've never been comfortable with the idea that Derpy's retarded, but I'm especially put off when her supposed mental problems are used as a vehicle for humor. Although this story doesn't contain my preferred character interpretation, I appreciate the respect shown to her by the story. Writing a mentally-challenged character is always difficult, but this fic gives her the dignity that every person/sentient pony deserves, without glossing over her intellectual shortcomings.
And the contrast between Derpy's view of her world and what's actually happening is where the real sadness comes in. Having something bad happen to somepony in your fic? Sure, that's sad. But when the pony in question doesn't even realize what's happening? Indeed, when they are incapable of understanding what's going on? That is a tragedy. Watching the actions of others being naively misinterpreted draws on some primal instinct to protect those who can't protect themselves.
There was one spot where the writing did cause confusion for me. Since I can't think of any way to explain it without significant story spoilers, I'm going to hide it behind this tag:
I didn't understand at first that none of the adults knew that Derpy's mom had tried to poison her. Naturally, that made it more than a little confusing when she was at home waiting when Derpy got out of the hospital. I'm not sure what could have been done to make this clear without abandoning Derpy's POV, but a glance at the comments tells me I'm not the only one who had trouble with this section.
Hopefully I won't have to resort to that too often; I'd rather write reviews which can comfortably be read in their entirety by folks who aren't familiar with the story already. Also, putting in hidden text requires me to mess with HTML, which is a recipe for disaster. With any luck, I didn't biff putting that in too badly.
And yes, I cried.
Star Rating: ★★★★☆ (what does this mean?)
This story's reputation is well-earned. Despite (indeed, because of) its brevity, it succeeds in developing its character, and in presenting her with tribulations which truly do tug at one's heart. The nonstandard choices in writing and style are used to great potential, and every 'error' is in fact an opportunity to understand the protagonist more deeply.
Recommendation: I can think of only two reasons to forgo reading this. Firstly, if you have a limited command of the English language. I suspect that the effect of the chosen writing style and presentation would be lost on someone who is a beginning or intermediate English reader. Second, if you don't want to cry. Because you will.
Next time: Memorial, by Buxton