Well, ladies and gentlemen: I just read my very first Stephen King novel. You probably think it would be something like It, The Shining, or Carrie, but nope! It was his 1995 book Rose Madder. Fans and even King himself regard it as one of his weaker novels, but I thought it was pretty good despite its shortcomings.
Rose Madder is about Rosie Daniels – a woman who has spent 14 years in a highly abusive marriage. After a drop of blood makes her realize that her husband is going to kill her, Rosie leaves with his credit card. She travels to a town 800 miles away to begin a new life. While there, she meets Bill Steiner and comes across an odd painting at a pawn shop. However, she continues to look over her shoulder. Her husband Norman – a corrupt cop and detective – tries to track her down any way possible.
Essentially, it’s Snow White. Rosie is the title character. Norman is the Evil Queen. The drop of blood is the Huntsman, and the women that Rosie encounters at the Daughters and Sisters shelter in the new town are the dwarves. Oh, and Bill Steiner is the prince.
Normally, I don’t do scary things, but keeping the Snow-White narrative made things easier to deal with while reading it. I really enjoyed the parts, in which Rosie finds the strength to live her own life, to fall in love again, and to fight back Norman.
I also was surprised that King could write fully realized female characters. Rosie is not just a damsel in distress. She made the decision to leave Norman after seeing the drop of blood on her mattress. King makes sure to detail how Rosie grows from being timid to being confident in leaving her past behind with all of its trials and tribulations. For example, when she and Bill argue about which house to move to, she has trouble controlling her temper and comes extremely close to becoming Norman. Now, some people have complained about Rosie ending up with another man, instead of being an independent woman. Honestly, I didn’t mind this because Rosie still wanted to be a wife and a mother, even after her experiences with Norman.
In addition, King wrote supporting female characters well like Anna Stevenson and Gert Kinshaw. Anna Stevenson is the head of the Daughters and Sisters shelter, (therefore she’s Doc). She is no-nonsense, but highly understanding of Rosie’s situation, and her ex-husband Peter even helps her out by sending abused women to the sanctuary. Her parents started the shelter to protect and help battered women rebuild their lives, and Anna wanted to continue that legacy. Then, there is Gert. Gert is a black full-figured woman, who teaches mixed martial arts at the shelter to help women restore their confidence. From what I have read, King tends to be fatphobic in his writing, but Gert is refreshing. She is plump and competent. She even pees on Norman when she spots him at a picnic that Rosie is supposed to be at. What also helps is that the mixed martial arts are shown to have limits. Gert fights Norman while confidently using her abilities, but despite her efforts, Norman gets away. However, don’t expect all other black characters to have that kind of character development. The other speaking black person is essentially a servant to the white woman in the painting and a magical Negro. After reading this book, I’m going to put King on my list of male authors who write fictional female characters well, which currently only has Chris Bohjalian.
Now, let’s move onto novel’s flaws. First, let’s talk about the painting. In the middle of the book, Rosie comes across an oil painting of a woman wearing a rose madder (haha get it?) toga-like garment standing on a hill looking at a temple. She ends up buying the painting, yet later on, she notices that the picture keeps changing and even discovers dead crickets when she slices open the back. Then, she finds herself in the painting, not once, but twice! I get that King wanted to King-ify the book because maybe he wasn’t satisfied with the story solely being a serious drama. The lady in the rose madder chiton can be seen as a fairy godmother, for whenever Rosie is in a vulnerable place, she imagines her, and poof, she’s empowered. At the same time, a lot of reviewers have pointed out that it’s a sudden change of tone, and that it doesn’t develop naturally. While those are valid critiques, my main issue is that King spends too much time on it, especially when Rosie ends up in the painting the first time and is instructed to find Rose Madder’s baby. It’s like King was getting paid by the page and wanted to top himself for the sake of topping himself. I have a similar problem with the novel ending a couple of times, but at least, what occurred there was more necessary than what happened in the painting.
My main problem with the novel is Norman himself. Now, I have read books that feature very intense and abusive antagonists, yet they are usually portrayed objectively. What makes Norman Daniels stand out from this group is that he is the most irredeemable. Not only is he abusive and corrupt, he is sexist, racist, homophobic, and most of all, a murderer. The first scene of the book depicts Rosie’s miscarriage, which occurred after he punched her in the stomach, and it gets worse from there. His crimes range from busting a guy’s balls during interrogation to biting people to death, including some of the dwarves, uh I mean ladies from Daughters and Sisters. Norman’s actions make him less human as the book progresses. Heck, even Schlegal – the cartoon villain from The Paris Architect – would not have gone that far to torture Jewish people and those who try to hide them, (and we’re talking about a guy who wanted to cut people’s fingers off as an intimidation tactic). A novel allows people to look into the minds of every character, no matter how unlikeable they are. It’s not that King didn’t want readers to know what Norman was thinking. They get a lot of that since the book is told through both his and Rosie’s perspectives. The problem is that his soul is so full of vile that it makes him barely human and beatable. When I read the Norman’s passages, I felt angry and stressed because I knew that he was going to do something horrible and get away with it. The only good part about Norman is that he dies after a spider bites him to death, while he’s in the painting trying to track down Rosie and Bill.
In the meantime, I listened to the audiobook, and the performances and the music really enhance the story. Blair Brown – an actress who has appeared on stage and in film and television shows like Fringe and Orange is the New Black – voices Rosie, and she does a great job. In the new town, Rosie is hired as an audiobook narrator since her voice is soft, silky, and dynamic. Brown projects this very well along with other emotions like the fear of being tracked down by Norman and the self-confidence that Rosie slowly develops. It helps that she has recorded a variety of audiobooks ranging from Number the Stars by Lois Lowry to City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, and it pays off. King himself plays Norman. Some people might get distracted with his nasally voice, but for me, that tone made the character all the more infuriating, which is I’m sure what King wanted. The best part of the audiobook was the music. I have heard musical interludes in audiobooks before, yet Rose Madder utilizes this the best. Between passages and perspectives, various melodies would play in the background. For example, a hopeful and romantic piano phrase will come on when Rosie gets closer to Bill. My personal favorite is the lurky and slimy synthesizer and hard guitar riffs that play when the novel transitions into and out of Norman’s passages. I wouldn’t be surprised if John Carpenter came in just to compose those bits. Despite the issues that I have with the book, I would recommend the audiobook, so one can appreciate how the music was used like I have.
Overall, Rose Madder by Stephen King was fairly good. Despite the critiques with painting and Norman, King is clearly capable of writing from a battered woman’s perspective as well as from those of other female characters too. I also really respect the creativity that went into making the audiobook to enrich the story. And, these are all coming from a person who normally doesn’t read scary stuff. Along with getting the audiobook, I would also recommend the novel to those who like horror, stories about overcoming domestic abuse, and especially to Stephen King fans who haven’t read it yet or haven’t read it in a while. Warning: the book might give one nightmares.
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