Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: "Rose Madder" by Stephen King

In an instant of mad courage, Rose Daniels walks out of the house she has shared with her abusive husband for fourteen years. Fearful, unprepared, and desperate, she sets off for a place where Norman will never find her, where she can be Rosie McClendon once again.

With the support of other battered women, Rosie finds her footing. For the first time since her teenage years, she is free: to have a cup of coffee with her friends, to earn her own money, to close the door of her own home at night... even to carefully examine the idea of love and romance, and its place in her future.

But if the world is kinder than Rosie knew, it is more dangerous as well. Norman, a police detective, takes his wife's abandonment of him as an insult--and he is determined to repay. Every day that Rosie becomes stronger, Norman gets closer to finding her.


Rose Madder by Stephen King (1996)
4.5 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 5/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: graphic descriptions of physical and sexual abuse; miscarriage; stalking; racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs; murder of women
Overall Response: Half affirming, half screaming heebie-jeebies... in other words, King at his best.


More Thoughts: Of all the Stephen King novels I've read, Rose Madder is hands-down the scariest. No monster in the King of Horror's supernatural bestiary is as terrifying as an abusive husband hunting down his fugitive wife. The reader doesn't have to use their imagination for this one: the horror comes from our own everyday world.

The story would be distressing enough if told only from Rosie's perspective. She struggles with paranoia and trauma, recounting more than a decade's worth of abuse in grisly detail. But King goes above and beyond (although in this case, "above" may not apply.) Rosie's narration alternates with Norman's. The reader doesn't just share the fear of being hunted by an evil man. They are drawn into unwelcome intimacy with his mindset, reading every other chapter from his perspective.

Norman's chapters are brutal. Sickeningly misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and deeply violent. The worst of it is that he still thinks of himself as a reasonably good man, an upright cop, whose actions are justified.
Love, honor, and obey. I am a man who respects women as long as they behave.
At this point, dear reader, you are probably asking 1) why I read Rose Madder and 2) why I recommend it to you, instead of a Disney movie and a nice cup of cocoa.

To which I will answer: it's July, it's too hot to drink cocoa. And while Rose Madder is, as I said, the scariest of King's novels, it's also one of his infrequent tender, encouraging, life-affirming stories.

Yes, really.

I don't read King books for the thrills; I read them for the warm thumping human heart that is (sometimes, not always) at the center. For example: On the surface, Duma Key is about uncanny paintings and a washed-up goddess, but it's really about the "found families" created by fellow survivors. Lisey's Story, my second favorite book in the whole world, is a little about the nightmares of the imagination and a lot about marriage. I can't begin to put the emotional core of Low Men In Yellow Coats into words, but it's much the same. The variously frightening or surreal elements of each book, while absolutely present and relevant to the plot, is not ultimately what one remembers about the story.

So it is with Rose Madder. While I wouldn't read Norman's chapters late at night, or think too hard about the Rosie's painting of the woman in the field which keeps releasing actual live crickets into her apartment, the story is about a frightened, hollowed-out person being encouraged and filled up with life, hope, and freedom.
Bill kept taking food out of the cooler--cold beef sandwiches, tuna sandwiches, chicken salad, potato salad, coleslaw, two cans of Coke, a Thermos of what he said was iced tea, two pieces of pie, a large slab of cake--until it made her think of clowns piling out of the little car at the circus, and she laughed. 

He looked up, holding a salt shaker in his left hand and a pepper shaker in his right. She saw he had carefully put Scotch tape over the holes in case they fell over, and that made her laugh harder.

"What?" he asked, smiling himself. "What, Rosie?"

"Were you expecting friends to drop by? A Little League team, maybe? Or a Boy Scout troop?"

His smile widened, but his eyes continued to hold that serious look. It was a complicated expression, one that said he understood both what was funny here and what was not. "I wanted to make sure you'd have something that you liked, that's all."

"Bill, I can eat just about anything."

"I'm sure you can," he said, sitting down beside her, "but that's not what this is about. I don't care so much about what you can stand or what you can manage as I do about what you like and want to have. Those are the kinds of things I want to give to you, because I'm crazy about you."

She looked at him solemnly, the laughter gone. She was trying to get what he'd just said straight in her mind and finding it hard going--it was like trying to get a bulky, balky piece of furniture through a narrow doorway, turning it this way and that, trying to find an angle where everything would finally work.

"Why?" she asked. "Why me?"
King's insights into domestic violence and the social structures that protect rather than expose it, especially in law enforcement circles, are spot on. But his investment into the lives of female survivors is what makes the book beautiful. While the gut-churning impact of Norman's abuse--and the reader's knowledge that he will find Rosie before the book is done--aren't ever diminished, the reader is not only cheering for Rosie's newfound life, but increasingly certain that she will have the strength to defend herself next time her husband appears.

I suppose it is a book about creating support systems, and daring to enjoy your life, as much as it is a book about stalking and abuse. The reader's heart physically lifts at descriptions of a joyous motorcycle ride, of the supportive friendships between women, of men who directly and openly stand against the domestic violence. And you can't help but ache, happily, at the thought that Rosie might get to love and be loved in a healthy way.

King doesn't end Rose Madder at the point one might expect, but continues a little futher, exploring the long-term effects of Rosie's ordeal (both at Norman's hands and from her dreams of the woman in the painting.) While it makes for a bit of an uncomfortable conclusion, not entirely the happy ending one wants, it is in tune with the verisimilitude of the rest of the novel. The scars never quite fade, the memories are never entirely erased.

Without hesitation, I place Rose Madder among Stephen King's best five books. I recommend it with a little more hesitation, as the content may be overwhelming for many readers.


  1. 1) i really liked that sandwich scene.

    2) did you think, like me, that there was some relationship between the spider-woman-in-the-painting and the spider creature from It?

    1. 1) The sandwich scene (well, the whole motorcycle ride + lake + sandwich + fox sequence) is a gift.
      2) I can't speak to that, actually, as I've never read It. I'm DEAD CERTAIN there are ties to King's greater mythos involved, but... I continue to dance around the Greater Mythos and read all the periphery books. Bool.