An abused wife, Rose, flees her psychopath husband, Norman, who unfortunately for her is a cop, and starts a new life. Because this is a Stephen King novel, her husband comes after her… and she finds an odd painting in a pawn shop that calls to her, depicting a woman in a chiton in front of a temple, and which slowly reveals magical properties, both of a helpful and a dangerous nature.

The opening scenes of Rose’s marriage, and then her flight, are an astonishing piece of writing, horrifying and gripping and completely psychologically believable. So, warning for horrific violence against women (and also against men, eventually, as Norman starts taking out people standing between him and her.) Sure, most domestic abusers are not also serial/spree killers, but I regret to say that absolutely none of the horrifying violence he does to her within their marriage is stuff that doesn’t happen in real life.

This is an odd book, of parts that don’t quite mesh together and aren’t all equally well-done.

Rose herself is a wonderful character, and I loved all the parts that are just her fleeing, learning to be her own person, and exploring the magic of the painting. Unlike most thrillers with abused women, she actually goes to a women’s shelter. That part is also very well done and there are a number of great characters there. The one part of Rose’s story that didn’t quite work for me is her romance. On the one hand, I did like that finds love with a non-abusive guy. My problem is that he’s too idealized and doesn’t feel as real as a lot of other characters in the book – he feels like Rose’s wish-fulfillment reward rather than a real person.

There are a lot of sections from Norman’s POV. They are really unpleasant to read, for obvious reasons, and I ended up skimming them and reading just enough to keep track of what he was doing. Those could and should have been edited down to the absolute minimum. I often don’t mind King’s lack of editing – like, I was perfectly happy to read abou Rose decorating her apartment – but only when I like the characters, and there is absolutely nothing likable about Norman. He’s also not that interesting compared to other King villians. Like, Annie Wilkes is also hard to read, but she’s a great character with interesting motivations. Norman is just a horrible, vicious sociopath.

Then there’s the world of the painting. I don’t want to spoil it (though you can in comments) but it went in some directions I expected and some I didn’t. It’s a thing of power that is never really explained, but makes sense on its own terms, some drawn from our world’s myths, some original. It’s darker than I expected; helpful to Rose, in general, but a dangerous thing and not one that she controls. A lot of it has the same “wellspring of myth” sense that I got from parts of The Dark Tower and is explicit in Lisey’s Story. It feels both dreamlike and real, nightmarish but also a source of power that can be used for good, if you’re clever and well-meaning and determined and wise.

Those, of course, are the qualities of a fairy-tale heroine on a quest. Rose Madder has some interesting fairy-tale references as well as mythic ones; the gap between the prologue and the first chapter could be read as an incredibly dark take on “Sleeping Beauty,” in which the heroine rescues herself by means of a single drop of blood, though it comes from something much worse than the prick of a thorn. There’s a lot of red and roses in the story: Rose herself, roses, the painting called (or signed?) Rose Madder, the color “red madder,” the chiton, blood, pomegranate seeds. For a book that in some ways feels like two or even three books stuck together, the themes (as opposed to the plot and tone) are extremely coherent.

I liked it a lot but it’s an odd book and I’m sure not for everyone. King himself said somewhere that he didn’t think it succeeded, but the parts that work really work; it does feel like he was pushing at his limits as a writer, so maybe he felt like he was over-ambitious and failed. If nothing else, I bet he learned a lot from writing it. As I mentioned, I skimmed Norman’s POV as much as possible and would skip it entirely on a re-read. Lisey’s Story, in contrast, benefits from completely omitting the villain’s POV.

Rose Madder
alatefeline: Painting of a cat asleep on a book. (Default)

From: [personal profile] alatefeline

Hm. I think I might read it, but only if I was in a good mental place for putting up with horrible people, which ... as someone I read earlier today said, 2016 is basically fired.
maidenjedi: (Default)

From: [personal profile] maidenjedi

This book always fascinated me. Your post makes me want to revisit it, I haven't read it in probably 10 years or more.
maidenjedi: (Default)

From: [personal profile] maidenjedi

I remember it being the first novel that I read that really went head-to-head with domestic violence; it was impactful for me in a lot of way. Though, it was also the last of King's books that I read when it was first on the market; for whatever reason, book-related or not, my eagerness for his new material tapered off considerably. I did really enjoy The Green Mile, if you haven't read that one; I can't think of anything else post-Misery that I particularly enjoyed. (Now that I'm typing, it occurs to me that I did read Dreamcatcher, and came away thinking of it as a fever dream).

And oh yes, if I re-read, I'll skip Norman. I've read some of King's books often enough, you can tell looking at the spines where I'm prone to skip after the initial read. :-)

So, The Dark Tower. I'm following your posts, because I started the series about eight years ago, and just didn't keep going. I remember liking The Gunslinger and wanting to read the second book, but could not find it anywhere, so I bought the third book in anticipation and it just sat there. But it bothers me greatly that I haven't read them, because everything I know about them tells me they're the kind of Stephen King books I'm likely to enjoy.
Edited Date: 2016-07-17 03:39 am (UTC)

From: [identity profile]

Holy canola, I clicked on the Amazon link out of curiosity and the beginning was so awful I had to keep going (lol despite skipped pages included in the Amazon preview) until she got to the women's shelter. AND THERE I STOPPED AND PRETENDED EVERYTHING WOULD BE OKAY /o\

ho-lee, though, I see what you mean about the writing in the early bits

From: [identity profile]

Everything is okay! Except for some people who get in Norman's way. But Rose gets a very happy ending. She has to fight for it, but she gets it.

From: [identity profile]

I think of this one as a mess, but my mess, in a way; I read it just after escaping the violent home I grew up in for the last time, and this book was the first indication I had that anyone, anywhere, might have understood how difficult it was to do, or how long it takes for the terror to leave you- if it ever does. Seeing that experience on the page was such an enormous thing for me. I've never reread it because I'm quite sure the rest of the book would not stand up to my memory of that first few chapters.

I am very much looking forward to your thoughts on the rest of the Dark Tower books.

From: [identity profile]

so we both like "king".

Not surprising. I like your werewolf and vampire(?) books. Like King, I bought a few. ( more on the way-when I decide if I'll get a kindle or not)
So, enjoy.
ladyjane: whipped cream and hand-cuffs. "Got Plans?" (Default)

From: [personal profile] ladyjane

Not having read the book, is it possible the magic in the painting is potent enough to have literally created the perfect boyfriend for her?

From: [identity profile]

That's an interesting interpretation and I actually like it. There's nothing in the book to suggest it, and in all other cases the magic of the painting is obviously doing what it's doing, so I really doubt King intended it.

However, it's not impossible. He pre-dates Rose finding the painting, but he probably doesn't pre-date the painting itself, and he's present when she finds it. The painting itself has magic that extends beyond what's directly associated with Rose, but there is a timey-wimey aspect which is that it was clearly meant for her to find and even has her name on it before she walks into the pawn shop and spots it.

From: [identity profile]

I also liked this book a lot, and I'm glad to see someone else talking about it!

From: [identity profile]

I read this just last week because of your post, I haven't read much Stephen King in a long time (even when I think he's pretty good he gives me a vague sense of nausea apart from any scenes that are intended to be gruesome or frightening as such, his notions of sex and, more broadly, of the human body are not compatible with mine. but this one didn't have very much of that, comparatively.)

a lot of it was really good, like you said. I like Bill - or like that he exists because there is not enough of him to like or not like - if I consider him as a prize for Rose who deserves something nice for once, but not if I consider him as a not-all-men token who has to be in the book so that Rose can stand up for men's virtues against the scary goddess figure at the end.

also along the same lines, man I did not like the scene with the nice cop who explained to Rose about how she thinks she knows cops because of Norman but she doesn't really. her paranoia about them was pretty much entirely justified, I thought.

but I really really loved that the miscarriage, though not downplayed or forgotten, wasn't the breaking point for Rose or anywhere close to it. I cannot speak to psychological realism but I can't take narratives of abuse where the woman finally snaps because it's fine to do awful things to her but once he touches somebody else, that's it. I really appreciate that she left to save herself and not anybody else.

and I am not sure how I feel about Norman's backstory and issues, because I got the strong feeling that his particular sex-violence-trauma axis was deliberately chosen so that the kind of person who would enjoy reading him assaulting Rose would just plain not be able to get off on reading about what he does do. usually I don't assume I can guess authors' motives but this one I bet I am right. not sure if I think that was a good decision or not, if so. maybe.

edit: maybe it bugs me because I think there is some kind of THING among nice heterosexual men not being able to really imagine that someone who genuinely strongly desires women sexually also hates them and wants to hurt them. like the desire to believe that abusers of women are secretly impotent or secretly sexually repulsed by women is such a trope among straight guys of that sort who are anti-abuse but identify strongly with their own sexuality. I'm sure it's a real thing sometimes but not so much as these guys would like to believe.
Edited Date: 2016-07-19 09:19 pm (UTC)

From: [identity profile]

I think Bill is definitely there as Rose's prize, I'd have just like him better if he'd felt more 3-D. King can definitely write good guys who aren't perfect (but are the perfect match for a particular woman) and Bill would've worked better for me if he'd been more along those lines.

The #notallmen character, I thought, was the guy at the bus stop who directs Rose to the women's shelter, and turns out to be the ex-husband of the woman who runs it. That's a bit of a an unfair take, though, because he did feel like a real person even with his little page time, and I think he's got more of a purpose than that to show Rose that not all men are monsters. It's to show her (or, really, the readers) than relationships can begin and end without horrible or even any abuse ever being involved - that "not getting along" is a perfectly reasonable reason to break up.

I thought the abuse narrative (from Rose's POV) was incredibly realistic. It's not like that for every woman, but for the women for whom it is like that, King absolutely nails it.

I got the strong feeling that his particular sex-violence-trauma axis was deliberately chosen so that the kind of person who would enjoy reading him assaulting Rose would just plain not be able to get off on reading about what he does do.

I suspect the same thing, just because the book has a bit of a didactic aspect to it - not to educate onlookers, but to be potentially helpful to someone in a Rose-like situation. So yeah, I think King thought carefully about it and probably did do that on purpose.

I like his villains best when we either don't get their POV, or they're supernatural and somewhat unknowable, or both. I find his villain-POV on villains who are basically regular sociopaths to be pretty tiresome/unpleasant/skippable in general. I did like the Flagg POV in The Stand because Flagg is supernatural, partly unknown to both himself and the reader, and has bigger fish to fry than being sadistic because he likes it, so he's less one-note.

I don't know if it's a thing with male authors in general but there does seem to be a theme with King that misogynist villains are also (conflictedly) sexually repulsed by women or by sexuality in general. (And his man-on-man rapists are the same way - they're getting off on power and sadism, not sex.) I think the idea of genuinely sexually desiring women while also hating them as people is hard for people who don't feel that way to wrap their heads around. I know it exists but it's actually a little hard for me to understand also.

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