I’ve read a lot of Stephen King’s novels and have a good sense of his style, but Dolores Claiborne surprised me. I knew the general outline of the plot before I picked it up, but I had no idea that the book is simply a 300-page monologue with no chapter breaks. Dolores is a woman in her 60s being questioned by the police about the death of her employer, Vera Donovan. Dolores is open about the fact that she didn’t much like Vera:
I swear before heaven I always knew that Vera Donovan’d just about be the death of me—I knew it from the first time I saw her. And look what she’s done to me. This time she’s really stuck her gum in my gears. But that’s rich people for you; if they can’t kick you to death, they’re apt to kiss you to death with kindness.
Dolores has lived her whole life on Little Tall Island, just off the coast of Maine. Back in the 60s, Vera had a summer home on the island, and she hired Dolores to keep it clean. As decades passed, Vera’s husband died, and she stopped seeing her children, and she began spending most of her time on the island. As she got older, Dolores became a companion and caretaker. Vera was prickly and difficult to work for, but Dolores insists that she didn’t kill her.
She is, however, ready to confess to something else—the murder of her husband, Joe. And that’s what most of the book is about: Dolores’s troubled marriage, its effect on her children, and the murder itself. The story is, alas, nothing new. Joe drank too much and hit Dolores. When she put a stop to that, his abuse turned to their three children, each of whom suffered in a different way. Dolores knew they’d have no kind of a future, and so she did what she felt she had to do.
Stephen King doesn’t always write great women characters. Often, his women are sidelined and not given much of interest to do. But I’ve found that when a woman is the focus, he writes them well. I’m thinking especially of Carrie White, Rose Madder, Lisey Landon of Lisey’s Song, Trisha of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and of course Susannah Dean of The Dark Tower. Mostly, I think, he writes his women like people, which obviously the thing to do, as we are, in fact, people. What I mean is, he doesn’t seem to be trying to make his women excessively different from his men. But he’s willing to put them in situations specific to women, as is the case with Dolores.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s not just about this one woman, it’s also about Vera and the bond she and Dolores share. These two do not have much in common, and they seem to love nothing more than getting the better of each other. But they have a bond, a sisterhood. They have both learned that, as Vera tells Dolores, that “sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to.” They are bitches together and toward each other, and they both seem to enjoy it. I liked them together.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned anything creepy or supernatural. The drama in the book is entirely about the real world, with only the slightest hints of the supernatural occurring around the edges. Those hints felt almost thrown in, and I think the book might have been better without them. They certainly weren’t needed.
This is not a Stephen King book I see talked about much these days. It doesn’t end up high on people’s King recommendation lists. I think that’s a shame. It’s a good choice for someone who just likes suspense and doesn’t want much horror. If you’re wanting to try King or expand your reading of his backlist, give this a try.