King doesn't waste any time establishing the mood or theme of his 29th novel, opening with a graphic scene that depicts a woman being beaten so badly that she has a miscarriage. Gruesome, certainly, but also a riveting start for the tale of Rose McLendon Daniels, a battered mouse-wife for 14 years until she breaks free from her monstrous husband, Norman.
Rose Madder's early chapters are packed with suspense as Rose starts a new life and stormin' Norman, a police detective whose "muscles popped like freshly risen bread rolls," begins to track her down. The reader should hear an alarm, though, the moment Rose wanders into a pawn shop and is powerfully attracted to a dusty oil painting of a woman on a hill. Rose swaps her engagement ring for the painting, which, of course, is no ordinary picture. It changes daily, and before long, "like Alice going through the looking glass," Rose simply walks right into it.
From that moment, the novel's structure turns unwieldy. The real-world action builds nicely to the inevitable confrontation between Rose and Norman, while the passages devoted to the world of the painting are tedious.
Though this is an engrossing story of a battered woman, its supernatural elements are neither super nor natural. And that's what's the matter with Rose Madder. (Viking, $25.95)