Rose Madder

Author: Stephen King

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1995

I read it: May 2016

rose madder 2

I used to have a bookmark that listed all the major Stephen King titles that related to The Dark Tower. I can’t find the bookmark now, but I always remembered that Rose Madder was the only title I hadn’t checked off my list. This book exists in huge numbers in the used bookstore circuit, so I snagged a copy and then let it hang around long enough that it wore me down and I read it.

And now I feel a bit worn down for having read it. It took me a month and a half, which is pretty long for a plain novel of average length. I went in figuring it would be more work than play, so I just chipped away when I could. The story is about a woman leaving a horrifically abusive marriage, so at least I was confident that she would end up in a much better place by the last page. Then it just became a matter of how much nastiness there was to endure along the way.

Rose’s journey seemed real enough, but the overall tension is created by also following her policeman husband, Norman. There are chapters from his POV so that the reader knows just how close he is in pursuing Rose as she flees to a new life. It works in that regard, but really, how much do we want to get inside the head of this madman? Norman’s chapters are all in italics, which seems to be the author’s way of saying, “Sorry, I didn’t intend for this person to be such a central part, but the plot demands this structure, so let’s get through this together.” It was painstaking at times.

The supernatural stuff is what I was waiting for. That comes around the halfway point, when Rose (becoming Rosie) finally steps into her pawnshop painting. This is neat stuff, centered on the mythology of the minotaur in the maze as well as a sort of otherwordly Rose doppelganger. (There’s a part where Rose is following the sound a crying baby, which I read in the middle of the night while my own boy was fighting sleep in the living room. I liked this tie-in to the twilight strangeness.) After the character’s first time into this dimension you know the book will end up back there, so then it’s a matter of going through the paces to circle back.

The Wikipedia entry for this book states that King called this one and Insomnia “stiff, trying-too-hard novels.” I liked Insomnia for what it was, but I see what he means. For all the blood spilled throughout Rose Madder, the whole thing remains a bit too cerebral, as if it can only be studied at arm’s length. Even so, there are the striking set pieces, such as a skirmish taking place outside the bathrooms at an outdoor park, which illustrate how King can pull off the mechanics of any physical scene. These can always be plumbed for writing lessons.

And then there are the few brief references that remind me why this was on my list in the first place: “Ka is the wheel that moves the world, and the man or woman who rages against it will be crushed under its rim.” It’s only a thin connection, but there you have it. This book isn’t really DT-essential. If anything, the mysterious painting aspect shares a concept with Lisey’s Story, which came a decade later and is one of my favorites of that King era. It’s amazing the guy has so many books out there that he can casually look back on some, like Rose Madder, as stiff practice for better things to come.

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