I’ve become quite a fan of Stephen King in recent years, but a frequent complaint from the less enamored rings true about Rose Madder: the man could stand an editor. I have no doubt that had anyone not named Stephen King submitted this book as a manuscript, any editor worth his or her salt would have cut about 100 pages (they all would choose the same 100 pages to cut, I bet) and made this a much better book. As it is, Rose Madder is 550 pages of greatness stuck in a 650-page book.
Content Warning: To discuss the plot of this book in any meaningful way necessitates touching on the subject of domestic violence.
The Rose of Rose Madder is a 30-something woman in a horrifically abusive marriage to a psychotically violent police detective. One morning she decides she’s had enough and decides on a whim to leave him. She takes his bank card, withdraws some cash and buys a bus ticket to a town she’s never been where she doesn’t know a soul. There she finds a community of women willing to help her, most of them victims themselves. Rosie (as she prefers to think of herself) starts to put a new life together and come out of her shell, but the husband she left behind is unwilling to let her move on.
King is at his best in creating a truly terrifying villain in Detective Norman Daniels. The revelation of the depth of his psychosis is a slow burn which King executes brilliantly. In many ways Rose Madder is one of the scariest of King’s novels that I’ve read, because of the sad plausibility of the central threat. Neither I nor anyone I know is ever going to stay at a murderous hotel or be haunted by a re-incarnated cat, but the prevalence of domestic violence makes the idea of being in a relationship with a vengeful psycho like Norman a terrifying possibility.
A novel focused just on Rosie’s attempts to make a new life for herself and on Norman’s descent into madness during his hunt for his wife could have been a truly great novel. But of course, it would have lacked the signature King touch, a supernatural or macabre element.
Here, that takes the form of a painting Rose finds in a pawn shop while trying to hock her engagement ring. (It turns out to be a fake.) No one shares Rose’s enthusiasm for the artwork, but they do admit there is something eye-catching about it. The painting depicts a lone woman, clad in a purple toga (the shade is identified as the titular color) with her back turned toward the observer. Her blond hair is in a plaited braid down her back and she seems vaguely fierce and determined. Rose draws strength from the painting, going so far as to dye her brown hair blonde and style it after the painted woman. However, Rose starts to become unnerved by the painting when it seems to be enlarging in perspective despite remaining hung on her wall. Objects in the painting appear to be changing size. Then one night Rosie’s room is filled with the noise of crickets chirping, and she realizes to her shock that the sound is coming from the painting.
The real “jump-the-shark” moment comes when Rose steps into the world of the painting. I don’t object to the fantastical premise, but nothing about the world of the painting is written in an interesting way. The woman in the Rose Madder toga and another character Rose discovers there deliver stilted cryptic dialogue and send Rosie on a bizarre, metaphor-laden quest that will have some connection to her real-life situation but which includes so many random and superfluous elements it all becomes rather meaningless.
The first excursion into the painting comes after 300 pages or so of intense realism and just stops the novel dead in its tracks. The second trip into the fantasy world comes near the end and robs the climax of its power. Its a damn shame, too. The “real world” of Rose Madder is populated with memorable characters and events and the writing gives the plot real tension. It’s hard to even imagine what King saw in the world of the painting to justify the way it sabotages the story.