It’s rare for me to reread anything. I usually have such a healthy, flourishing TBR (and so little time!) that I rarely glance behind me, in a reading sense, even when there’s times I’d really, really like to. And that’s the beauty of this year’s Pop Sugar Reading Challenges. Not only has it been pushing me hard to read outside my comfort zone, it’s also allowing me to do a few rereads. First up, to mark off the prompt of a book that I read more than ten years ago, I picked up a favorite – we’re talking a MAJOR favorite – from when I was a teenager in the mid-90’s, around fifteen or sixteen years old: Rose Madder by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton, 1995). I don’t think this is one of King’s better-known books, but it had a lot to say to me as a teenager, and rereading this was a really interesting trip down memory lane.
Trigger warnings for spousal abuse, graphic miscarriage, rape, violence, racial, sexual and gender-based slurs, and murder.
Rose Madder opens on a scene of horrific violence: Rose McClendon is miscarrying a much-longed-for baby after yet another terrible beating at the hands of her husband, Norman, a police officer. Flash forward nine years later, nothing has changed, and a glimpse of a single spot of blood on her side of the bed wakes her up long enough to understand the consequences of staying married to such a man. Rosie flees, taking a bus to an unnamed Midwestern city, and begins a new life at Daughters and Sisters, a women’s shelter for women leaving abusive situations.
Starting over from nothing isn’t easy, but Rosie’s new friends, a job changing sheets at a hotel, and a rented room are enough, and soon, a new job offer and the attention of a new and gentle man named Bill Steiner turn her life into more than she could ever have dreamed. A mysterious painting of a ruined temple and a blond woman, purchased from Bill’s pawn shop, begin speaking to Rosie, and not a moment too soon: Norman’s desperate search for his wife, to make her pay for abandoning him, is bringing him closer and closer, and threatening everything Rosie’s built.
What I remember appealing to me so much as a teenager were the emotions of this book: the fear Rosie felt, the horror that was Norman (who is actually even worse than I remembered), the newfound wonder of a life rebuilt and the first blossoming of love after so much pain and terror. Back at fifteen, I thought Bill Steiner was just the swooniest character out there; as an adult, I see that he didn’t have quite as big of a role in this story as I thought I remembered. This is Rosie’s story, and Norman’s: the narrative is split between the two, with the main narration going to Rosie, and Norman’s barely sane voice chiming in every now and then.
Good hell, can Stephen King write an abusive husband. Norman is one of the scariest characters I’ve ever read, one of the most dangerous. His scenes scared me more as an adult than I ever remember being scared as a teen. Another thing that really struck me is how much more difficult Rosie’s escape would’ve been today. She arrived at the shelter and her stay was fairly brief, thanks to being able to rent a room which she could afford on wages earned under the table as a hotel maid (there was also talk of supporting herself waitressing or possibly running a cash register somewhere; there were training sessions on this at the shelter, mentioned briefly). And Rosie had no children to support. How much more difficult, or even impossible, is it for Rosies today to flee such terrible situations and maintain any kind of life? Can women with zero work history, no skills, and a child or several, even manage at all? Thinking about this just depressed me further while reading this book.
It was really interesting, though, to see how much this book has affected my own writing. There were a lot of lines here and there that I remembered, and a few scenes that I hadn’t even remembered but that influenced a few things I’ve written (mostly an unpublished novel about a young woman rebuilding her life after leaving an abusive relationship. Yeah. This book had that much of affect on me!). A few times, I’d turn a page, read a line or a paragraph, and would be immediately thrown back into my teenage bedroom. If nothing else, finding my way back to this book has really reminded me of the magic of rereading.
I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending back then, and I’m still not now, though I understand it much better. No spoilers, but I do think it works a lot better reading it as an adult. If you’ve read this book, I’m curious as to your take on the ending, or on anything about this book. It’ll always be one of my favorites, both because of my history with it, and because of the strong emotions King has managed to make come alive throughout.
Visit Stephen King’s website here.
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