Viking • 1995 • 420 pages
A Novel Critique
Completing King's loose "trilogy" of novels focusing on the unique and often secret horrors of women, Rose Madder lies somewhere between the brilliant Dolores Claiborne and the somewhat lacking Gerald's Game. Certainly it is the most brutal of the three - crucifixion by handcuff and murder by well don't hold a candle to induced miscarriages, coat hooks in the eye, or being bitten to death by a maniac cop. However, in Rosie Daniels we find a sweet, remarkable woman whose journey from frightened spouse to powerful, realized individual is both satisfying and thrilling, lending the book a gentleness missing from the other two novels. Long on story and narrative propulsion, Rose Madder boasts a forward momentum also largely absent from its predecessors, which relied heavily on flashbacks. In nearly all ways, Rose Madder is a success, albeit with some unusual narrative choices challenging this impressive blend of story, character, pacing, and tone.
Rosie Daniels is an abused woman who suffers her abuse in a confused, semi-silent state - what she later thinks of as her "sleep." Her husband Norman is a police officer so convinced of his wife's inferiority that he cannot see beyond it, into disturbingly irrational realms of perception. At the outset of the book, we witness the aftermath of his most recent - and tragic - brutality, following a beating so severe that Rosie suffers a miscarriage. That she stays in this dull state of panic for nine years longer is unsettling. We are not allowed Dolores Claiborne's tough exterior, nor are we given the benefit of looking backwards at past events; Rosie's horror is real and present. What rouses her is a single drop of blood on her bed sheet one morning, and the dual thoughts that come with it: that he might kill her if this keeps going on ... and that he might not.
Symbols are important to Rose Madder, and this drop of blood is instantly totemic: in it, Rosie is forced to not only face the realities of her marriage and life, but also the consequences of facing them. We follow her thought processes as she makes her terrified escape, and they are fascinating: Rosie is intelligent enough to know that once she allows herself to face the uncomfortable truths about her life, she will never be able to shield herself from them again. The cold comfort of her denial is both understanding and terrifying.
Her escape to a large unnamed city is thrilling to watch. Keeping the city nonspecific works both as a metaphor for Rosie's initial confusion and fear of the unknown, and later as a representation of her own anonymity and her desire to start anew. Like Dolores Claiborne, she reclaims her maiden name - becoming Rosie McClendon, the identity she thinks of as "Rosie Real" - foreshadowing the scene in which she pawns her wedding ring. King never loses sight of Rosie the character, sympathizing with her reactions without ever letting her become pathetic. It is gratifying to see her seek and take assistance from a sympathetic man named Peter Slowick; unlike Jessie Burlingame, Rosie McClendon doesn't equate all men with her husband, inherently and irredeemably bad.
Here, the novel splits into two personalities. As we watch Rosie move on to a shelter named Daughters & Sisters and begin to construct a new, independent life, we also watch Norman, consumed by rage, searching for her. This situation recalls Tom Rogan's hunt for Beverly Marsh in It, but while Tom is violent and vengeful, Norman is actually tottering on the brink of insanity. This revelation helps and hinders the novel. On one level, peeking into Norman's psychoses - and watching them worsen - is darkly fascinating, contributing to the momentum of the novel and a deeper understanding of Norman's depthless rage. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, Norman's insanity grows so exponential it approaches parody. His diatribes against every person who is not white, male, or straight grows tiresome. The strong points King is making about the nature of prejudice gets lost in the onslaught, rendering a late scene in which Norman is urinated on by an angry black woman both satisfying and frustrating. A more interesting sequence involves Norman going undercover at a Daughters & Sisters picnic, wearing a disguise and riding a wheelchair. Initially, he is accepted as an ally, due to his alleged handicap and the buttons with feminist slogans he wears. This recalls a scene in Insomnia, in which a pro-life radical is accepted by the pro-choice women due to her gender, while Ralph Roberts - trying to save them - is not. Additionally clever is Norman's abject racism undercut by his admiration of black singers. These insightful commentaries on the dangers and ills of perception are far more interesting and subtle than Norman's often monotonous villainy.
Like Rosie's single drop of blood, Norman's bank card - which Rosie had taken when escaping him - becomes a powerful symbol, becoming Norman's object of obsession, goading him on as the blood has prompted Rosie into her new life. These singular fixations are met metaphorically in the middle by Rosie's wedding ring, perhaps the most powerful symbolic object in the novel. During the novel's most pivotal scene, Rosie trades her wedding ring (which, she discovers, wasn't worth what she had thought, a clever encapsulation of her marriage itself) for a painting of a Grecian-looking woman looking down at a ruined temple. The name of the painting - like the novel - is Rose Madder, one of King's most versatile titles, signifying the woman in the painting, the color of her dress, and Rosie's growing state of mind. The trade of painting for ring is Rose's symbolic divorce from Norman, anticipating her first real steps of independent life. In the same pawn shop, she meets a much kinder man with whom she will eventually fall in love; outside the shop, she accidentally auditions for - and gets - a job as an audio book reader.
At this point, the book shifts tone and intent. Not long after Rosie hangs the painting in her new apartment, it begins to grow and change - not a painting, really, but a doorway (not dissimilar to the doors on the beach in The Drawing of the Three, one of the elements linking Rose Madder with the Dark Tower series). The taut intensity of the chase-story elements as well as the blossoming story of Rosie's awakening are now spiked with the supernatural. The sudden appearance of the mystic (and mythic) seem almost intrusive, as do the supernatural overlays in otherwise mainstream novels like Cujo, Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and even the out-of-context psychic flashes in Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game. However, where the supernatural in those books could have easily been excised (improving the stories in most cases), in Rose Madder, the painting and the world through it become intrinsic to the plot. Here, King seems to be experimenting with magic realism, a genre of writing in which fantastic elements are introduced into an otherwise straightforward realistic story. While it could be argued that many of King's novels fit this general characterization, magic realism tends to draw from myth, fable and folklore, commenting on the situation at hand and allowing for a deeper understanding of it.
Because of their importance to the second half of the book, the question, then, isn't whether the painting and the myth-oriented world through it could have been avoided, but whether King executes these elements appropriately. The build-up to Rosie's growing awareness of the painting's unusual properties is exciting and effective. King's is on firm ground watching "regular" people come to grips with the paranormal. In the chapter "Crickets" (King's most efficient and direct chapter title since "Anderson Stumbles" in The Tommyknockers), Rosie begins to piece together the mystery of the painting, recalling Dennis Guilder and Leigh Cabot's conversations about Christine, or Jack Torrance beginning to understand the true nature of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.
While Rosie's journey into the painting - and the final showdown with Norman - is exciting and mostly fulfilling, it is somewhat disappointing that the novel's fascination with symbols and metaphor extends so deeply. While Rosie plays a part in Norman's demise, she does not confront him directly, subverting that basic satisfaction (an argument could be made that Rose Madder in the painting is an aspect of Rosie McClendon, but that only reinforces the book's overreliance on symbols). Further, Norman's transformation into an actual bull undermines the book's (and King's) stance on the gender wars, coming dangerously close to the stances into which Gerald's Game settled - the concept that all men are inherently bad, even animalistic. Rosie's insistence that men be viewed individually, as well as the reader's understanding that King is working in an unusual genre whose rules work differently from that of "standard" horror or fantasy, saves the book from making overt statements, allowing them to function on subtextual levels.
The success of Rose Madder depends largely on the reader's willingness to accept King's experimentation. Certainly it is not an inaccessible book; despite the subject matter, the book is instantly absorbing. Norman makes a terrific, horrifying villain, and Rosie's journey of discovery is an unlikely source of excitement (the scene in which Rosie looks around her new apartment for the first time is one of King's most joyful and optimistic). The book's shift into myths and symbols running parallel to the "Rosie Real" world is fascinating, if not completely effective. In final assessment, Rose Madder is a gripping, fast-paced hybrid that serves as a summation of the female-consciousness novels King experimented with in the early 90's, while retaining some of the more classic horror novel aspects with which King fans may be more familiar.