One drop of blood on the sheets. That’s all it takes for Rose Daniels to flee the house. One drop of blood while she’s changing the bed sheets tells her it’s time to abandon her abusive husband Norman and get as far away from her East Coast home (a thinly disguised Boston area) as she can. Norman so strictly controls her life that Rose wonders if she can go before he catches her and “talks to her. Up real close.” That’s a cute euphemism for a beating.
To her surprise, she gets $370 and hops a bus to the Midwest, landing in a city that, judging by the street names, is either Chicago or the unnamed city from “Richard Bachman’s” Roadwork, as different from home as can be. Thanks to a kindly gentleman at the bus station’s Travel Aid office, she is referred to a shelter called Daughters & Sisters. There, the current and former residents get Rose on her feet and into a new life. A chance stop at a pawn shop leads to two life-changing events. In one, a little old man named Rob Lefferts overhears her talking to the shop’s manager (who instantly falls for Rose), and asks her to read from a lurid pulp novel from the 1950’s. He offers her a job doing audiobooks on the spot. (A rather prescient idea for 1996.) The second is the painting, depicting a woman in a rose madder gown staring at a ruined temple. Rose becomes obsessed with the painting.
As she gets settled into her new life, putting the painting in a place of prominence, she fears one day Norman will still hunt her down. He’s the worst kind of obsessive stalker – He’s a cop (a fact which later offends a cop in Rose’s new city.) He finds people for a living. But then we learn why the painting its so strange. Like Alice through the looking glass or down the rabbit hole, Rose steps through the painting. By the time Norman finds Rose, things get really, really strange.
Like a lot of King’s 1990’s work, there are more direct connections to the Dark Tower series. Dorcas, Rose’s guide on the other side, tells her she is part of their ka, a word for “purpose” in The Dark Tower. The woman Rose dubs “Rose Madder” for her gown is a scary entity who will not allow Rose to see her face. She asks Rose to charge naked into the temple to retrieve her baby, guarded by a bull who is clearly based on the Minotaur of Greek myth. When she succeeds, Rose Madder tells Rose rather cryptically, “I repay.” Bad news for Norman as, from that point, it’s pretty clear he’s going to collect on that whether he likes it or not.
Though Rose Madder exists in a supernatural realm, the real monster is Norman, a sociopath with an undeserved sense of entitlement. He tells himself over and over again that he’s angry over having his bank card stolen. It’s strains credibility in the beginning and is revealed as complete bull (apt term, considering the climax). Norman can’t stand it if anyone, especially if they’re not a white, male manly man, gets one over on him. In one scene, a woman does proceed to give him a memorable ass-whupping. Norm’s practically in tears, telling himself a woman can’t do this to him. Norman is someone for whom compassion, given or received, is simply impossible.
Rose’s escape from her old life is a fairy tale story (escapes from evil home life, finds helpers, meets Prince Charming) inserted into King’s universe. (Paul Sheldon from Misery makes several appearances.) And of course, it isn’t a fairy tale. Every step of the way, she is scared. She is certainly a likeable character who doesn’t remain a scared mouse the entire time.
King writes long and meandering. Sometimes, it works (It, The Stand, Needful Things). Other times, he needs to hurry up and get to the point. I’m all for descriptive passages and sections inside the minds of the characters that deepen the story. What I don’t like is the lengthy endings that King developed a habit of using around this time. It wasn’t so bad in Insomnia, where there was one last plot point to reveal. Here, it just seems to stretch out Rose’s happily ever after (which has a few not-so-happy moments).