This was another holiday book exchange gift from Black Raven — a book I requested thanks to the recommendations of other Cannonballers [EDIT: Narfna!! I think it was you again! It’s like I’m your literary stalker.]. I don’t generally read in the horror category (although I did review King’s Carrie a few years ago and thought it was great). While there are some horror-y elements to Dolores Claiborne, I think “psychological thriller” is a better description and it is indeed a thrilling story. I was on the edge of my seat and didn’t want to put it down until I was finished. I gotta hand it to Stephen King — he is a helluva storyteller. This novel features a couple of very strong female characters and is told completely from the point of view of Dolores, and I think King nails it. I was impressed with Carrie for similar reasons. I should read more Stephen King.
The main action of the novel takes place on Little Tall Island, Maine. It’s 1992 and 65-year-old Dolores has been accused of murdering elderly Vera Donovan, the wealthy woman for whom she worked for decades, and it’s not the first time a death has been linked to Dolores. Back in 1963 when Dolores’ husband died, local law enforcement investigated Dolores but determined that Joe St. George died by accident during a total eclipse. Nevertheless, suspicion clung to Dolores over the years. Dolores, in the wake of Vera’s recent death and the accusations lodged against her, decides to come clean. In the presence of two local policemen (men whom Dolores has known since they were kids) and a police reporter, Dolores makes a confession: she did indeed kill her husband Joe but she did not kill Vera. The novel is Dolores’ statement, told as one long narrative without chapters and written in Dolores’ distinctive Maine accent.
Dolores opens and closes her narrative describing her relationship with Vera at the end of her life. Vera and Dolores are two bitchy women from different social and economic classes but who have more in common than one might expect. Vera always had a reputation for being exacting and hard to please, firing the locals she hired to work at her home for the least mistake. Dolores started working at the house when she was newly married to Joe and pregnant. At the time, Vera, her husband and kids were summer visitors to their home Pinewood, but after Vera’s husband died and her children grew up and moved on, Vera made a permanent home on the island. Dolores transitioned from being summer help to a year-round housekeeper and eventually to a live-in caretaker. The fights between the two women, as Dolores describes them, were classic, each woman trying to one-up the other. But as Vera grew older and more infirm both physical and mentally, the nature of the battles changed as did the relationship between the women.
Dolores explains to her audience that in order to believe her account of what really happened to Vera, they must first hear the truth about what happened to Joe. This part of the novel is completely fascinating. Joe, like many men of his generation, had no problem getting physical with his wife if she displeased him. For the most part, this doesn’t bother Dolores much; she saw her own father behave that way and she could hold her own against Joe if necessary. They had three children together and Dolores is devoted to them, working and saving for them while Joe drinks, takes on occasional jobs, and hangs out with the boys. Dolores would never have considered murdering him for any of that; it is something else all together that pushes her to the edge. Vera possesses an uncanny ability to read Dolores and becomes a surprising ally and support for her. The description of what happens between Joe and Dolores was pretty horrifying. King was at his best in setting up the murder and detailing how it played out. The eclipse and the imagery of that combined with Dolores’ frame of mind and actions was very well done, too.
The relationship between Dolores and Vera, especially at the end when Dolores reveals what happened before Vera died, is one of the best parts of the story. As a reader, you wonder why these two women who seem to hate each other and take such joy in goading each other, why do they put up with each other? Why do they need each other? The ending of the novel is pretty perfect, I think. Stephen King understands what women, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, were up against, and how for smart women trying to protect what is theirs, it might lead to “bitchy” behavior.
CBR15Passport: different genres