Stephen King once famously proclaimed himself the Big Mac and fries of literature — meaning his works are popular and enjoyable, albeit perhaps lacking in nourishment. I heartily disagree with that assessment, for the most part. Novels such as IT, Dolores Claiborne, and The Dead Zone are intricate, multi-layered masterstrokes; methinks King is too modest in regards to his own creations.
However. . . the Maine author's observation does hold true in a few select cases. Christine is a barrel of fun, but it certainly offers no depth. That's cool. King's 1983 novel about a haunted car is campy horror at its campiest. I think I would put Rose Madder in the Big Mac and fries category, too: while fun and involving, one comes away feeling full but perhaps not particularly satisfied.
This is a brutal, hard-edged tale of spousal abuse, escape, and recovery. The main character is Rose, a woman dealt physical and mental trauma from her husband for fourteen years. Rose Madder is her journey to self-discovery and freedom. Like previous novels Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne, King takes an unflinching and daring look at femininity and what it takes to be a woman in the modern age. And, for the most part, he succeeds.
Perhaps my biggest problem with this story is not the infamous magical painting Rose escapes into (a plot point that didn't work for me the first time around, but I had a bit more fun with it on this reread), but Norman — the abusive husband. This dude is so over-the-top it's unreal. King is a master at creating despicable, terrifying humans; it's nothing short of fascinating that he failed so completely with Norman. He's a walking cliche, and King never takes the time to give the reader any reason to sympathize with him. He's just CRAAAAAAAAAYYYYYY from literally page one, and he only gets worse. Because of that, much of this novel's potential menace is lost. Shame.
That said, the mythological elements of this novel . . . are interesting. They don't always work, and sometimes they seem awkwardly juxtaposed with the woman-on-the-run thriller feel, but it's whatever. King would explore escaping into an alternate, mythic world to better effect in Lisey's Story.
Rose Madder is Stephen King at his most average. While containing interesting ideas, some captivating prose (especially that prologue — sheeeeesh!), and a serviceable main character in Rose, this novel just feels tired, inessential. At times I got the sense King was getting bored with the story, and was ready to finish the damn thing. Recommended, but perhaps only for King completists.
There are a few tangential connections to Dark Tower, such as references to ka and the City of Lud.
Paul Sheldon of Misery fame gets a few generous shoutouts.
"In that instant she knew what it must feel like to cross a river into a foreign country, and then set fire to the bridge behind you, and stand on the riverbank, watching and breathing deeply as your only chance of retreat went up in smoke.”
I thought Desperation was next, but I forgot The Green Mileexists. Ha!