A story that stays in your mind long after you’ve turned the last page
The best contemporary fiction, it seems, offers us either one of two Aristotelian alternatives. One, an escape (however momentarily) from the chaos of our lives, and two, heroes who are somehow better than us and inspire us, or antiheroes whose lives are so disastrous and whose problems are so heart-wrenching that they make our own lives seem downright easy in comparison.
In “She’s Come Undone,” Wally Lamb manages to do both. The story narrates the account of Dolores Price, a 40-year-old woman who recollects her harrowing process into adulthood. The character is depicted as a compelling heroine who is first defeated, only to rise above the worst life has to offer.
Dolores survives through a lot: The unraveling of her parents’ marriage, her strained relationship with her mother, and from being ostracized by her peers to being raped at a young age. If you’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita, you can’t help but notice the striking similarity in the plotlines. Both characters are raped by sociopathic older men posing as father figures. But Nabokov’s Lolita comes undone from the experience whereas Lamb’s Dolores emerges as survivor after being a victim.
You can’t help but sympathize with a character whose mother responds to her daughter’s onset of menstruation with, “That’s great, Dolores. Thanks a lot. That’s just what I need right now.” Yet Dolores emerges from the shadows of her past and finally figures out life by the end of the 465-page-long book.
The plotline is pretty depressing but it’s the narration that keeps from giving up on the book. Also the characters have a way of taking form and growing on you. Dolores, even in her most self-deprecating moments, manages to keep you rooting for her. Dolores’ mother earns our sympathy in spurts as does her grandmother, Thelma, whose inability to relate to her own daughter and grandkid brings us to the realization that oftentimes, even in our own lives, we’re unable to connect to the ones closet to us. Call it generation gap or simply refusing to see where the other is coming from, there are times we just fail to understand the complexities inherent in a person.
Since Oprah selected her first work, “The Deep End of the Ocean” by Jacquelyn Mitchard, her knack for choosing books with troubled plots has been evident. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that she chose Lamb’s book for her Book Club in 1996, albeit four years after its publication.
There was a great deal of gushing over the fact that, despite being a man, Wally Lamb has managed to write a book from the point of view of a woman. Whether or not Lamb accurately captures “the woman’s psyche,” can’t be said because he’s not writing about “women,” but about a particular woman who suffers continuous abuse at the hands of person after person, year after year, and who time and time again encounters an array of idiosyncratic people who hardly exist outside of Oprah Book Club selections.
Yet when you reach the last page, you can’t help feeling a sense of satisfaction as, by the end of the narrative, the heroine becomes stronger and independent rather than weak because of her troubles.
Yes, Dolores copes with her difficulties by rewarding herself with food and overeating which adds to her problems. Yes, she falls in love with a man who turns out to be a narcissist in love with her willingness to please him rather than with her. Nevertheless, she grows on the reader as a heroine who isn’t looking to be rescued but who’s trying to find her own path in her own way.
The part when Dolores goes off to college to fulfill her dead mother’s dreams and starts intercepting her roommate’s letters from her boyfriend and then secretly coveting the seemingly perfect man is intriguing. The episode that narrates Dolores’ closeness to the cleaning lady at her dorm who is also obese and filled with self-hate and her subsequent misdirected cruelty at the lady is enough to make you wonder if humans are by default hypocrite beings.
Following a suicide attempt, Dolores spends seven years in a private mental hospital, and after she has finally both recovered and lost a lot of weight, she sets out to find and win Dante’s love. The story takes another turn when Dante is no longer the man she had made him up to be.
After a point, it seems as if Lamb is unwilling to let go of Dolores and hence the story just drags on. Toward the end of this introspective work of fiction, Dolores faces abortion and infertility. She encounters AIDS, Parkinson’s disease and hints of the Holocaust. You begin to wonder if Lamb was actually writing a script for a television serial.
However, the book’s blurb comes with a promise: You’ll never forget Dolores Price. And the book lives up to the expectation that comes with such a promise. Part sad, part hilarious, the book in some ways reminds us that despite the pain life might bring, we must have the courage to rise above the odds and live again; and that’s enough to overlook the slight glitches in storytelling.