I have read thirty-seven of Stephen King's books at this point in my life, and never have I struggled so much with not wanting to finish one, nor has finishing one taken me such a long period of time as with Rose Madder. I cannot place my finger on exactly why I felt this book dragged on and on, taking almost two months for me to get through it, as I would set it down for weeks at a time and have almost no interest in picking it back up save for a desire to see if it got better and to know what happened in the end. King has had a few duds over the years (I didn't care much for The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Blaze probably would have been just as well left unpublished. Roadwork was simply not that interesting) as would any author with a catalog as large as his, but there is at least some redeeming quality in all of his works—that inexplicable King-ness—that keeps myself and millions of other readers coming back to him time and again.
That King-ness was present in Rose Madder as well, and to be clear, I'm not calling this novel a dud, per se. The opening chapter is heart-wrenching and immediately engaging on an emotional level. We are introduced with striking clarity to the victimized Rose Daniels and her psychotic husband Norman (whose craziness and violence rivals only Beverly Marsh's husband Tom Rogan in IT). In the book's opening scene, Rose is beaten so badly that she loses the child with which she was pregnant, yet stays with her husband for a number of torturous years. She finally decides to leave him (not a spoiler) and free herself from his abuse and manipulation to find a new life on her own.
What follows is a tedious recounting of Rose moving to a new city, finding a place to stay as well as an unexpected job, making some new friends, discovering a love interest, etc. And while we care about Rose's well-being through all of this, there was a dawning realization as the book went on that, for lack of a better phrase, nothing else was going to happen. What I mean is, until about halfway through the book when some bizarre things finally start coming into play, I thought King had written a “straight” melodramatic novel about a troubled wife leaving her monstrous husband. It would have been completely fine if that is what the book ended up being, I'm just saying it gave the whole story an imbalanced feeling when it took so many pages to get to “the point.” I thought many times over that this could have been a great novella, a nice tight hundred page story as opposed to a three hundred plus page hardback with heaps of filler material.
While some of the weird stuff later on was cool and fun to read (a maze with a Centaur, a magical image-shifting painting, a woman in a blood red robe who is very far from safe or sane), it ultimately didn't make a lot of sense or tie together in the way that most of King's stories do. It frankly felt like strangeness thrown in for the sake of strange instead of a story that melded well with and allowed for certain oddities.
Despite my critical tone here, once I finished the book I was ultimately glad that I stuck with it. It does have a few minor ties to The Dark Tower universe which I enjoyed picking up on, and Norman Daniels was a terrifying antagonist. He was the sort of villain that one could imagine being a real person, and dwelling on that is scarier than any monster.
So, all this to say, Rose Madder was just all right. It had some good moments and was worth a read for any King completist, but could have been a whole lot shorter and probably stronger for it.