She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a fairly ancient book (1992) that I have only just now read, and I read it because so many people have told me that Wally Lamb is a man who can write a female character really well. (Full disclosure: I also love the band The Guess Who, from whose song the title is taken.)
The cover told me I would laugh, and cry, and fall in love with the character. Well...not quite. The narrator, Dolores, has plenty to deal with. Her father is a philanderer who hits his wife and finally leaves. Her mother goes to pieces and has to be institutionalized for a time. The upstairs tenant, a married man in his 20s who seems to be a friend at first, rapes her. In response to all of this, Dolores isolates, doing two things mostly--watching tv and getting really fat.
That's just the beginning. We stay with Dolores into her mid-thirties, through a whole laundry list of disasters. In her favor, Dolores is ultimately pretty courageous, making different decisions over time, even if she does seem to come to them very slowly, kicking and screaming all the way. I did something while reading this book that I almost never do. After seeing several brick walls looming up and watching her slam inevitably into each one, I skipped to the end to see if there was a point to all of this hard-to-watch stuff. Satisfied, I went back and finished, but I came within a whisker of giving up on the story.
Dolores is a sympathetic character, and I wanted her to overcome, and be happy, but she was hard to root for, and sometimes hard even to like. People in pain often are, but she has a mean streak right from the start. She teases her father's boss's dog. When someone even lower on the social scale falls in love with her, she kills their beloved tropical fish with bleach. She insults and pushes away everyone who tries to help her. Some of her zingers are pretty funny, but also needless and hostile. She's an angry girl, and it is sometimes hard to bear with her.
The novel is ambitious. It's about making the best of what life leaves you, after the best laid plans are blown up and set on fire. It's about perseverance and forgiveness, and accepting the good things that come from out of left field. Did I like it? Not as much as I hoped I would. Some scenes are unforgettable, and Lamb has a wonderful eye for the detail that makes a scene real, but I only laughed a few times, it didn't make me cry, and I definitely didn't fall in love with Dolores--she's too prickly for that.
View all my reviews