Rose Madder (1995)
By: Julian on March 18, 2011  |  Comments ()  |  Share 
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 464
One day, after fourteen years of marriage, Rosie Daniels wakes up.

Rosie wakes up to the fact that she has been living with an abusive husband, the corrupt hero-cop Norman Daniels, who has brutally raped her, beaten her to the point of hospitalisation, induced the miscarriage of their child, and emotionally tormented her throughout the course of their marriage. What wakes Rosie up, ironically enough, is a single drop of her blood on the bed sheets – a miniscule quantity, given the volume of Rosie's blood that Norman has spilled over the years, but the single, solitary drop finally compels Rosie to take off, and to never look back.

Taking the first bus out of town to the most distant oasis that the shuttle company is able to offer, Rosie starts her life anew; she checks herself into the Daughters and Sisters Women's Shelter and re-takes her maiden name 'McClendon'. Over the next few weeks, Rosie gets her own apartment with the wages she has earned as a maid and she retains her contacts within Daughters and Sisters. She wanders into a pawn shop to see how much her diamond engagement ring is worth in order to sever the only tie that remains between her and Norman – the proprietor, a young man called Bill, reveals that it is a vending machine-quality cubic zirconia. Dejected, Rosie leaves but before she exits the store, she notices a painting of a woman in a rose madder dress. She is so enraptured by the picture that she buys it immediately.

Soon after, Bill gives Rosie a call, telling her that he is painfully in love with her and that they must be together. Rosie abides, and the only thing standing in their way is a rabidly vengeful Norman, who is using everything at his disposal to locate Rosie. When he does, Norman vows, he will talk to her up close.

Rose Madder would have been an immensely impressive and highly taut thriller like the ones that Stephen King wrote a couple of years earlier (see: Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game, both 1992), if it wasn't for that painting. Over a hundred pages, about a quarter, of Rose Madder's length is existentialist twaddle – first a lengthy dream Rosie has about being inside the painting, then when Rosie actually enters the painting, into a parallel universe – and it spoils the book.

It is for this reason that Rose Madder is probably Stephen King's most disappointing work to date. The superior writing quality is there from the outset and, until about half way in, he is at the top of his game as an author, skerricking any reservations anyone might have had following the bloated and self-indulgent Insomnia. Until we arrive at the passages that I've described above, this could well have been one of King's best novels – different, sure, but a disturbing quasi–stalk-and-slash that becomes increasingly tense as we sympathise more with Rosie and become far more disgusted with Norman's antics. Certainly, Rose Madder could have been just as good as his other two women-in-danger novels, Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game.

Then King ruins it, and I have not had more contempt for this author than when he spoiled what could have been an exceptional book, far better than his 1992 departures from the typical horror fare that he has used to earn his bread. If one were to look at King's bibliography, then Rose Madder is far from his worst book: Cell and The Regulators were awful, but at least both were consistently awful. Rose Madder was bitterly disappointing because, if it wasn't for King's attempts at some hare-brained fantasy tome, an extension of his Dark Tower material, the book could well have been one of his best.

Credit should be given where it's due. Rosie is written brilliantly, and she is certainly one of King's most sympathetic protagonists. By contrast, Norman is utterly vile, but he is written with slight ham-fistedness – his rampant misogynism verged on the pervasive, which numbed its impact; Norman would have been far more menacing had his rabid approach to women been a bit less aggressive.

The bulk of Rose Madder makes for an incredibly tense and high stakes thriller, and those who enjoy King's existential fantasy horrors might be far more impressed with this than what I was. But these two sequences, spanning three chapters and about a quarter of the book, are so jarringly inconsistent with the rest of the novel – both in theme and in quality of writing – that they damage Rose Madder irreparably. These hundred-and-fifty odd pages render Rose Madder bloated, self-indulgent, and ultimately it lets the book down.
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