Dolores Claiborne

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.

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13 Responses to Dolores Claiborne

  1. readerlane says:

    Oddly, I remember the movie better than the book. Kathy Bates was very good as the title character. Just finished reading Mr. Mercedes, another Stephen King suspense story without any supernatural elements, which I might try on a friend who loves police procedurals but not horror. You’ve left me thinking about Stephen King’s women characters….

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t seen the movie, but it looks pretty different from the book. I can imagine Kathy Bates being great for the role. I’ve heard good things about the Mr Mercedes books.

  2. Sly Wit says:

    Thanks for reminding me that I’ve always meant to read this since seeing the world premiere of the opera a few years ago:

    • Teresa says:

      I had no idea there was an opera. I can see the potential, although it sounds like it wasn’t great. Did you know there was an opera made of The Shining? I wonder if there are any others? I’ve seen Carrie: The Musical, which was kind of terrible, but also great fun.

      • Sly Wit says:

        Hah, no, I’m just super critical of most modern operas, although I appreciate the SFO putting on so many premieres and supporting new works. The production values and singing are usually pretty good, but I think Moby-Dick was the only one I liked from a musical perspective.

      • Teresa says:

        I hear you on that. I’m not an opera person, but I’ve had the same experience with musical theatre. The local theatre I subscribe to puts on new works every year, and they’re performed well and sometimes have good stories, but the music always leaves me a little cold. But I’m still glad to support new works.

  3. Jenny says:

    This was a very early King novel for me (Misery was my first! Can you imagine?) I remember being bewildered by it.

    I’ve gotten a little impatient with his early women, like Danny’s mom in The Shining. They tend to be sidelined, as you say, or helpless. But I think the fact that Stephen King is married to a healthy, smart woman has helped him do better over time. Rose Madder is a great example of where he started to turn around. (Some people would say Gerald’s Game but I disagree for Reasons.)

    • Teresa says:

      I just looked it up, and this was published a couple of years before Rose Madder, the same year as Gerald’s Game, so domestic violence and writing strong women must have been on his mind at the time. I don’t always mind that the women in his books are sidelined–it depends on the book. But I’m glad that he can do well when he chooses to spotlight women. He’s better than a lot of male writers of his generation.

  4. Mary Caddell says:

    Stephen King is, I believe, one of the greatest writers of our time. I will only buy a book if I intend to read it over and over and over. I have MOST of his books. He has a way of mixing great story-telling with the feeling you’re right there in the story, right next to his characters, and you see deep inside to see what makes that person tick. He does a pretty good job with outlining the women in his stories. I don’t feel like he gets it wrong when he writes about women – how we feel, how we think, why we do the things we do. Horror is his vehicle of choice, but King can drive any genre he wishes, and win the Indy 500 every time. My favorites are the Gunslinger series (oh, how I’d love to see them as movies!) Lisey’s Story, Different Seasons, The Dark Zone, The Stand. I feel his characters are people I know, love, fear, hate, and see in the mirror.

    • Teresa says:

      I think he usually writes women well–we’re just not often in the limelight..He is a wonderful writer, and I’ve loved to see how he’s dabbled in different genres. The Dead Zone, The Stand, and The Gunslinger books are among my favorites, too. And there is a Gunslinger movie coming this August–I can’t wait! I still have to get around to Different Seasons, but it’s near the top of my list.

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  6. Mentally filing this away for when I’ve finished The Dark Tower series… on book 3 right now. Funny you mentioned no chapter breaks – The Waste Lands has chapter breaks in abundance! Some chapters are just a couple of paragraphs.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh, yay, you’re reading The Wastelands! That’s my favorite. I am looking to seeing if you agree.
      The thing about reading The Dark Tower books is that you’ll end up with a whole slew of other King books you may want to read because it links to so much of his other work. (Salem’s Lot, The Talisman, Insomnia, The Stand, and Hearts in Atlantis are the main ones I can think of.) Alas, Dolores Claiborne doesn’t connect to that world at all, but it gives you a taste of something different that he can do.

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