Book Review: Rose Madder

My copy of the book.

It’s not exactly surprising to me that there are Stephen King books I haven’t even heard of, much less read. He has 65 novels and 11 collections of short stories. But it is pleasantly surprising when I take up one of those books — my sister-in-law, a fellow “constant reader,” read it first and recommended it to me — and it becomes one of my favorites of King’s work. I’m talking about his 1995 novel, Rose Madder. Rose Madder has a relatively simple, but effective premise: Rosie Daniels decided after 14-years of being married to the abusive sociopath and cop (not to be redundant), Norman Daniels, to flee for her life and start anew in the Midwest. Because he’s an abusive sociopath and a cop, Norman is a.) not just going to let that slide; and b.) he’s going to relentlessly pursue Rose until he finds her. Thus, tension abounds.

As has often been rightly said about King’s books and characters, King may be known for the supernatural and the otherworldly, but his best writing, his best stories, and his best characters are often the deeply horrific human ones. Norman is a man. He’s not Pennywise. He’s not Jack Torrance channeling ghostly forces of a hotel. Instead, Norman is more akin to Annie Wilkes from King’s 1987 book, Misery. That’s an apt comparison as well because Paul Sheldon and his books are canon within the world of Rose Madder. And Rose is a normal woman trying to survive Norman’s relentless cat-and-mouse pursuit, and in point-of-fact, trying to not be a mouse anymore. She’s becoming her own woman outside of Norman’s dominion, making a living on her own, making friends, finding love, and quite literally finding her voice by recording audiobooks.

This was a quick, exhilarating and tense read precisely because of how grounded and human the story was, but with King’s notable flourishes for describing the wicked and the ascendant (as in, the wicked getting their comeuppance, even if for a moment). To the latter, one of the most satisfying moments in a book I can recall is when Norman tracks down Rose through an affiliation with a women’s shelter and its fundraising event. Before he can get to Rose, though, he encounters Gert, a giant black woman who teaches the others self-defense. She not only kicks Norman’s butt, much to his surprise, but she urinates on him as payback for the way he would target Rose’s kidneys (instead of her face to avoid detection). That was a very satisfying scene, King, thank you.

King’s human villains tend to have a similar vein to them in terms of being racist, misogynistic, abusive, and violent, but King ups Norman’s awfulness factor by adding a biting pathology to Norman’s repertoire. In one sick instance, he tracks down the man who gave Rose a tip to that women’s shelter in the new city she’s absconded to, and he kills the man, but not before biting him 80 times. These moments are portrayed as blackout moments by King because Norman doesn’t remember doing it, only that his jaw hurts afterward.

Now, King does tread into well-worn territory, I have to imagine even for 1995: Rose escapes an awfully abusive relationship only to find love right away from a “normal” guy. It beggars belief that she could go from such a violent relationship, surely engendering all sorts of trust issues around men, to then falling madly in love with a man. Not to mention, I wanted Rose to be depending upon herself, not this new man, Bill. Still, when Norman does eventually catch up with Rose directly, it’s Rose who saves Bill. So, there is that.

Another gripe I had was some of the plotting in terms of: 1.) Once it’s known that Norman is in the same city because of the attack at the women’s shelter’s fundraiser, it’s beyond idiotic that the police, even with a police unit stationed at the house, would let Rose go back to her house, and that Rose would want to back to her house; and 2.) The scene where Norman is able to get the better of the two cops stationed at the house with the ruse of a drunk wayward man also beggared belief. As you sometimes see in movies and television, for the plot to move along — for the villain to overcome the obstacle to get to the climax — the cops necessarily have to be absurdly bumbling fools. I believe police can be inept, certainly, but not to the extent they were here.

Not plot-related, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this point, too: Everyone knows that King writes sex into his books (a podcast about King’s books calls their segments joking about it “pound cake”) and I’m fine with it, but it felt like a bit much here. If I took a drink while reading whenever King mentioned Rose’s breasts (and yes, even the developing breasts of Rose’s daughter in the epilogue), I would have died of alcohol poisoning before I finished the novel.

And finally, as sometimes also happens with King books, I almost prefer when the story is a straight up horrific cat-and-mouse thriller than when he takes any detour into the supernatural, as happened with this book. About mid-way through, Rose, who bought a painting on a whim at Bill’s pawn shop, realizes that the painting is alive and indeed, a portal to another world where “Rose Madder” exists as a spider-villain-woman-thing, along with another woman who resembles the woman Norman killed as a cop years ago. Once this plot thread was introduced, I said to myself: The climax will be Norman catching up to Rose and Bill at her house and to escape him, they will run into the painting. Sure enough, that is exactly what happened and it is Rose Madder, turning fully into the spider-thing, who kills Norman, not Rose. Rose doesn’t get her ultimate comeuppance over Norman! Which doesn’t necessarily have to be killing him; it could have been him facing justice for all the wrongs he’s committed.

Nonetheless, the supernatural portal painting wasn’t a bad idea, but it wasn’t as good as the story that occurred beforehand or the story afterward sans any supernatural elements. Norman also gets a little too hokey where instead of being a terrible human being, he is written as clearly going insane. That’s not as interesting as someone with agency being a bad dude.

I say all this, and yet, I still think Rose Madder is one of my favorite Stephen King books. The cat-and-mouse element, and especially Rose finding her own voice and agency after such an abusive relationship, and the characters from the women’s shelter who helped her along the way, was well-done and written by King. Again, because he has so many and so many great ones, when I say Rose Madder is among my favorites, that doesn’t mean I think it’s top five or anything, but it’s still darn good and it was well-worth spending the week on.

If you’re a King fan, and you want to see him tackle domestic abuse in his usual gut-wrenching way, then I would recommend this one to you.

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