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
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