If you are going to read Joyce Carol Oates (and you should), I absolutely insist that you start with her short stories. I haven't read enough of her novels to definitively say they don't measure up, but I simply cannot get enough of her short stories. In fact, she is the author of one of my all-time-favorites, "Why I Live at the P.O.".
This collection, which includes a story that is featured in The Best American Short Stories 2011, met all of my expectations. Her title story, Black Dahlia and White Rose, traces the brief intersection in the lives of Elizabeth Short (more commonly known after her murder as The Black Dahlia) and Norma Jean Baker (more commonly known as Marilyn Monroe). The rest of the stories continue with the theme, showing how darkness waits at the edge of our mundane lives.
I loved the way the stories were grouped. We open with the title story, then have a section that focuses on the relationships between parents and children and how they can go wrong. The third section has a distinct focus on women. Finally, the fourth section gives us pictures of imprisonment. My personal favorite story was the last, "Anniversary", although I also really enjoyed the title story and "I.D." One thing that I think is unique in Oates' writing is her ability to mediate between the popular (many of her works appear in what I'd consider the "glossy" magazines) and the literary (she has several well-earned spots in the Best American series). She's a master at inserting just the right amount of ambiguity into her short stories - that twist that really characterizes a great short story.
The stories are certainly dark, but not, I think hopeless. It's another line that I really appreciate short story author's balancing - the line between depressing the reader and making the reader think. If there was no hope in any of the stories, the collection would be depressing, but the appeal of a short story, for me at least, is in the ambiguity and the tension, so a happy ending every time won't work either. Oates is perfect at holding the right amount of tension. I think it is important to realize that short stories may not be for everyone, and that this set in particular does focus on explicitly heavy subjects.
If you're a fan of the short story, by all means read this. I loved it. If you're not a fan of short stories, this could be a good one to start with, if you are interested in darker, heavier themes with lots of ambiguity. If you're not a short story fan and you want to read something uplifting, this is certainly not Chicken Soup for the Soul.