“It’s best to be ruthless with the past. It ain’t the blows we’re dealt that matter, but the ones we survive.”
This post is a two-fer: a book review of one of my desert island books, that also happens to contain one of my favorite kick-ass women of Fantasy. I first read this book in college, and even though I’d read plenty of Stephen King by then, including The Stand, I immediately labeled it my favorite Stephen King book. Since then, I’ve read almost everything he’s ever written (and the rest are on my shelf waiting), and having recently revisited Rose Madder, I can say with certainty that it’s still my favorite.
This may come as a surprise to anyone even vaguely familiar with King. You may never have even heard of this book. We tend to think of his horror classics: The Shining, IT, Misery, Carrie, or stories that have been adapted into movies, miniseries, and shows: Dark Tower, Under the Dome, The Mist, 11.22.63. If you google Rose Madder you’ll find many posts stating it is a “B side,” including some comments from King himself. You’ll find people who thought it too stereotypically feminist, not feminist enough, too supernatural, or not supernatural enough, and people who thought it was good enough, but nothing really special. Yet, I’m in a dedicated Stephen King fan group on Facebook where I hear time and time again how this is someone’s absolute favorite Stephen King story.
I’ll try to convey what’s great about the book without spoiling anything. I hope to encourage people who have never heard of this to read it, as well as those who have heard of it but have been deterred from reading it by negative feedback.
Rose Madder is the story of Rose McClendon Daniels, a wife trapped in a horrifically abusive marriage with her husband, Norman. Norman is a cop, and since he’s with the very people she would call for help, there is little she can do to improve her circumstances. His friends are all male cops as well, and all on his side. Rose is not allowed to work, and has no money of her own, and no independence. She can’t have anything she wants, including a baby, and Norman will make sure of this in as sinister a way as you can imagine. She can’t read. She can’t take a walk outside on a spring day to enjoy the flowers. All she can do is wait on Norman and clean the house. Seemingly up against an insurmountable set of obstacles, one day, after “14 years of hell all told,” Rose has just had enough and tries to leave anyway. She knows Norman will chase her down and most likely kill her, but she goes nonetheless. The only thing scarier, she thinks, would be if he never did kill her–that she would have to live the rest of her life taking his violent beatings. In spite of fear and almost certain death, Rose bravely strikes out to forge her own destiny, and starts calling herself Rosie McClendon, excising his name and presence from her life. But of course, leaving him behind entirely won’t be that easy.
This book is suspenseful. It’s both plot and character driven. While the concept of an abused woman escaping her circumstances only to be stalked by her abuser is not a groundbreaking idea, and while the themes can be a little on the nose, Rose Madder elicits a hell of an emotional reaction. This book wrenches my gut, it brings tears to my eyes, it makes my heart race in anticipation, I can feel dread creeping up on me from a mile away before something terrible happens. This book inspired me, and many others to be strong when trapped in abusive relationships, and brave enough to leave these monsters. I had originally written “unafraid” instead of “brave enough,” and I want to stress that fear is intrinsic to true bravery in these situations. One criticism I frequently hear about Rose Madder is the villain is too over-the-top. Norman is not just sexist, racist, and homophobic, but takes these personality traits to the extreme. Yet anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship won’t find Norman over-the-top at all.
You can be with a controlling, manipulative abuser who isn’t one tenth as bad as Norman, yet you can picture him doing the extreme things Norman does. If all your boyfriend or husband does (and I use “all” lightly) is hit you, choke you, hold you down and scream at you, eliminate your privacy, isolate you from friends and family, rape you–none of these are as frightfully brutal as what Norman does to Rose in the book. Yet you can imagine Norman having done all of these at some point before moving on to even worse aggressions, and before that, he even acted charming and sweet. It’s a sinister art, what abusers do, tricking and trapping even the smartest and strongest women into almost inescapable webs. Even when someone isn’t quite at Norman’s level, he can still be an evil monster, and you can still picture him doing the things Norman does, no problem. Because if they are capable of invading your privacy, controlling you, hitting you, raping you–what aren’t they capable of? The one who made you cry in wrenching sobs only to sit there, listening, unaffected, or made you fear for your life, has already lost their humanity in your eyes. To you, they are already that extreme monster and you have no trouble picturing them with the fangs or horns they may as well have.
And let me be clear: the abusive boyfriend or husband as a villain is one that never gets old. He never gets less scary. He is always disturbingly evil, and sadly, always relevant.
Another major criticism I often hear about Rose Madder is that the painting, one of the most important aspects of the book, isn’t well-described. What a travesty for one of the great modern descriptive storytellers! Critics claim the reader can clearly envision the paintings in Duma Key, or “The Road Virus Heads North,” and how that description was done in only 112 words while Rose Madder is 420 pages and we still can’t really picture the work of art. But I always thought the painting was intentionally less descriptive than others he’d written. We have a hard time picturing it because it isn’t for us. It’s for Rosie. And a work of art need only speak to one person. We’re given just enough that we have the bones of where everything stands in the painting, but little enough that we can engage with our imaginations and imprint onto the painting whatever we need it to be.
To prove this point, if you search for interpretations of the Rose Madder painting you’ll find several, each containing a woman in a red dress (usually with a gold band on her upper arm) overlooking a temple or other stone structure (usually shielding her eyes) while a storm brews above. The woman’s hair might differ slightly from painting to painting, but it is usually blonde, except when brown to show the woman as Rosie McClendon, and the stone building might be in various states of decay, or might be to the right or left of the woman. But the fact that everyone comes up with basically the same picture means it can’t have been that poorly described. (I’ll include some interpretations at the end of this post.) The differences according to the artist’s interpretation are just that: what the artist/reader wants or needs most from the painting. What Rosie needs, is exactly what the book says. She sees the woman on the hill as free, unencumbered by men, society, or even a bra. She is comfortable, strong and brave. Rosie sees the subject of the paining as someone who isn’t too afraid to say yes to life and get what she wants, and it inspires her. And Rosie does indeed start getting what she wants.
Some say this is too convenient: that she, without struggle, gets the perfect job for her and becomes relatively famous within that field. But this never bothered me because I saw it as a sad reminder of the wasted potential of so many women in abusive relationships who aren’t allowed to leave the house or have their own financial independence or fulfilling careers. Who knows how many other things Rosie would have been good at besides this? Maybe she’s just really smart and talented, and all it takes is to get out in the world and try some new things to discover your potential.
People also complain that the book is too feminist. And I could write a whole book on how people are unjustifiably turned off by the word “feminist.” Others will say this book wasn’t feminist enough, or was adequately feminist but too cliché in its feminist aspects. I could also write a whole book about how, for some reason, it’s almost impossible for anyone to do anything “feminist” without someone taking issue with it. To keep it short, this is how most non-feminist women discover feminism: in its most basic form. Things become cliché to us after being inundated with them time after time. But for someone who has been imprisoned as long as Rosie has–for countless women just like her, the Indigo Girls aren’t a cliché feminist band; They’re new, exciting, and innovative. The same goes for the seemingly textbook diversity check-off. It’s an introduction to intersectional feminism, not an advanced course. It’s a starting off point for women who need a little inspiration to get going. Complaining about it is the equivalent of saying kids need to be reading Dickens and Fitzgerald in school instead of Harry Potter. Maybe if we let them enjoy Harry Potter and cultivate a love for reading, then later they’ll want to read Dickens on their own.
This is fitting since King is often criticized as not being literary enough–undeserving of writing awards or accolades–mostly because of the inclusion of supernatural elements in his work which gets him cast aside as “genre fiction.” Yet there’s as much insight to be gleaned from a King story as any other literary work, and it’s often less of a chore to slog through.
I love that Rose Madder opens with the image of a book being torn apart. Because reading is dangerous to tyrants. Even a Harlequin romance is powerful. Rosie might get inspired by a strong, independent woman and start getting it in her head that she can go anywhere and be anything, just like Rose Madder inspired women to leave their abusive relationships. If that was all it did, that would still be enough to make it one of my favorites. Books help us empathize with people in these situations and might make us want to help them too (like women helping each other in Rose Madder becomes such a powerful strength). There’s power in reading, and Norman (and men like him) want all the power. They want to control what we do, and even how we think–especially what we think of ourselves. Because the second we mark our price tag up, it’s game over for them. Their power is gone.
I’m not going to sit here and state that everyone who found a flaw in this book is wrong. It’s not perfect. But it elicits strong emotional reactions, it has staying power–people remember it, even ones who didn’t particularly love it–it has a compelling main character even though stories like hers have been told before, one of the most heinous and evil villains I’ve ever read, and it makes a profound statement about the power art and literature have to free us.
And what does the average reader say in refutation of all the negative criticism? The people in my fan group who laud it as their all-time favorite say: “I just liked it. There’s just something about it that spoke to me.” And it spoke to everyone a little differently. It spoke to other fans in ways that I didn’t consider when it spoke to me. But, like the Rose Madder painting, art need only speak to one person in just the way they need it to.