Revisiting one of King’s most memorable characters

Dolores Claiborne ★★★★★
Stephen King
Viking, 1992

Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman’s got to hold on to.
~Dolores Claiborne

DoloresClaiborneNovelMeet Dolores Claiborne — island woman, mother of three, murderess and overall high-riding bitch. And I love her! She is strength and smarts and dignity personified and in my opinion, one of the most vivid and memorable literary creations ever to walk the pages of any book. I don’t say that lightly. Yes I’m a fan, yes I’m gushing, but this is also a more tempered, critical evaluation after living with her existence these many years. She has stood the test of time and I have no doubt she will continue to do so long after her creator has passed.

Arguably one of Stephen King’s most underrated and dismissed works, Dolores Claiborne remains for me one of his best and most literary novels. The first-person narrative voice is brilliantly executed, the island dialect ringing true, the rhythm of the language making the sense of place so vibrant and tangible. The reading experience is only enhanced by the audio version (which I highly recommend).

Bringing nothing but his A-game, King delves into the life of a poor, uneducated, island woman, who marries young and gets to repent in leisure. I love this story so much because not only does it capture small town life and a woman’s place in it, but also the unshakeable bonds of friendship that can be forged like steel between women, and the ferocious love a mother feels for her children.

In her awesome review, Catie puts it this way:

This book is a powerful and naked look at mother-love, at how desperate, intense, and all-consuming it really is….But mainly this is the story of an unlikely alliance between two hard talkin’, high riding bitches; two women from very different walks of life who find that they have a similar core of bitter strength.

At its heart, this is a book about a desperate woman who is driven to a very desperate act. It is a crime novel built around a detailed confession that’s so urgent, so immediate, the story sucks you in like quicksand and does not want to let go. This is not a horror novel, but there are a few moments of unadulterated suspense and terror that had my heart jack-rabbiting in my chest. [When Dolores returns to the well and Joe has nearly succeeded in climbing out and grabs her ankle, I just about screamed and threw the book across the room! When you have to do such a dirty deed, you want it to happen as fast and clean as possible. It could not have turned out more ugly and terrifying for Dolores and is it any wonder she imagines Joe’s face grinning out at her from behind the wheels of Vera’s wheelchair on the day of Vera’s death? (hide spoiler)]

Dolores Claiborne is not the only high-riding bitch in this story, there is also Ms. Vera Donovan, her contrary, vitriolic employer who explains the facts of life thusly: “Husbands die every day Dolores. Why, one is probably dying right now while you’re sitting here weeping….An accident can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.” Dolores and Vera make an unlikely pair, but over the years they cleave to one another in an unexpected, unforgettable friendship that runs dark and deep.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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