Patrick's Reviews > She's Come Undone

She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb
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's review
Jul 15, 2008

did not like it

Update: I found an old review I wrote about this book for an online book club I used to be in. I clearly hated it. Here it is, more or less in its entirety.

To be blunt, I didn't like it. It's hard to know where to begin when explaining my dislike for 'She's Come Undone.' Wally Lamb, to be sure, wrote very...believably. I felt like it was a girl writing. However, the fact of the matter is that I'm a man, and I have no idea how a woman thinks. Therefore, I'm clearly not the best judge of this.

My first problem was the paper-thin development of male characters in the story. Perhaps I'm being picky, but I thought all the male characters. In the best cases they had no depth. In the worst cases their actions didn't even make sense.

Let's first explore the "Daddy" character. He is a stock deadbeat dad. Not all that attentive or a good parent when he was around, and then he disappears. And when he does so, we are left to fill in the blanks with vague details of his life. He is remarried. He is divorced again. He is remarried again. He doesn't write. He makes empty promises. Blah blah blah. We can understand why Dolores is so angry with him, but we are given only a cursory glimpse to his emotions, what drives him. Towards the end of the novel his wife writes Dolores and tells her that he was "a good man." And it leaves Dolores to wonder, 'was he a good man?' This was a good device, because we are left to wonder as Dolores did. However, the fact remains that we were given very little of the character. He was a tool, a means to make Dolores what she grew into (quite literally). But "Daddy" is probably one of the better male characters. (A side note, and to answer Megan's question, I think it was a blatant device used by Lamb in having Dolores refer to her deadbeat father as "daddy" constantly. He was clearly, in my mind anyway, attempting to connect Dolores's father's leaving as the end of Dolores's innocence, the end of her childhood, as shortly after she was violated by Jack. And maybe that is truly how such a thing would happen. But, as useful a device as that may have been, I find it trite, because I cannot bring myself to believe that a young woman with so much hate towards her father that she would cuss him out at her mother's funeral and cut off all contact with him for her entire life would continue to refer to him as "daddy" throughout the course of her tormented life. But that's just my opinion.)

Thayer. A stock nice guy meant to contrast Jack and Dante. Beyond that, he really serves no purpose aside from offering Dolores a type of redemption.

Jack and Dante. Now, I feel that they were basically the same character. Which was appropriate, because they both did complete 180's in their personality. Someone in an earlier post mentioned that there were "clues" as to their true nature. With Jack, I disagree. It was complete bullshit.

First of all, all we were given of Jack was how wonderful he was. In fact, at the end the chapter in which we are introduced to Jack and his generically cute wife Dolores says the whole family fell in love with a couple. Which is true in a sense, in that Jack won the family over. But what of his wife? No one seemed to like her. Dolores's mother was fucking Jack, so clearly she didn't love his wife. And Dolores complains that his wife isn't good enough for Jack, that she is not pretty enough or some such nonsense. No, no, it was Jack they fell in love with. And initially you can see why. He is handsome and fun, very likable. But then he is completely different, and we are given no good reason why. He starts out like an all-American neighbor who suddenly devolves into a degenerate because, why, because he is giving Dolores rides home after school? Because his wife wanted to get pregnant? It didn't make sense. There were no hints at all until he started giving Dolores rides home after school and swearing and acting like a generally rude asshole. And to me that felt contrived, as if Lamb was saying, "see, it shouldn't be surprising that he is raping her. He swore and yelled at her in the car a few times! He's not the guy we all thought he was!"

But that's just it! Lamb sets Jack up as this great guy and then artificially tears him down. Jack didn't even feel like the caricature he was purported to be. It was like two different people, and the only common thread was that Dolores had a crush on him and he was called Jack.

Let us just take a moment to review Dante. We are clearly meant to draw parallels from Jack to Dante. Both were introduced to us as good men. Then they were arbitrarily turned into child molesters when the situation fit (i.e. when it would ruin Dolores's life). To be honest, the only thing that even hinted at what Dante would become when he was religious and vulnerable is the letter where he says he does not want to become a womanizer. But, in brief, he is a religious, vulnerable virgin as a young man and a verbally (and on one occasion, physically) abusive, arrogant, sex-obsessed adult.

And he decides that Dolores is the one from the get-go. Why? Mr. Wing (the landlord) mentions that he is quite the womanizer. The teacher at the dance alludes to the exotic women he used to date. He clearly gets off on young girls (as we see at the dance and his relationship with Sheila). But Dolores steps into his life, he beds her immediately and then, just as quickly gives up on all other women. Moves in with Dolores and eventually marries her. I realise that there are arguments for why this could happen (she's easy to live with as she just considers herself lucky to have him; but I find that bullshit because he clearly isn't intellectually stimulated by her, and I doubt he is intellectually stimulated by hot high school girls), in short, I'm not really buying them. They are not logical in life or the story. So, essentially, Dante is simply there to be the adult Jack--physically and emotionally raping Dolores until she is able to defend herself and leave. But he is not believable.

And finally, Dolores. I have so many questions. She gets fat and depressed for good reasons. Fine, all very well. I sympathize. College breaks her and she goes nuts, has a brief lesbian encounter (but, come on, what young girl doesn't experiment with that sort of thing in college? Am I right ladies?) and freaks out about it and, generally, her life. So she runs away, swims with a beached whale, goes crazy and ends up in a mental institute. And boy, does she go crazy. Biting her tongue til it bleeds? Mutalating herself in various ways? Why? I read that sort of thing and I was fucking shocked. I mean, she was depressed, sure, but why did she start mutalating herself? Because she was in a mental hospital? I don't buy it at all. I feel like it was simply stereotypical bullshit thrown out by Lamb for shock value, as if to say to the reader, "look....look what her life has done to her!" Ridiculous. In fact, I found the entire mental hospital to be a load of bullshit, from the "therapy" she alternately accepts and rejects (which she should have just outright rejected, because, maverick or no maverick, Dr. Shaw belonged in that hospital as a patient, not a doctor. That scene where he is talking to Dolores in the "womb" (pool) was just creepy. It made me uncomfortable.) to the way she leaves. Completely contrived. Why did she leave? Everything was going well, so she started "etch-a-sketching" (a clear connection to her mother and her painting, specifically the flying leg painting. Both are left of what you would expect, even in creative outlets) and then decided to abruptly abandon the therapy before completion due to some psychic. That was completely out of character, at least out of the character Lamb had fleshed out for us in the mental hospital. She was just starting to come around and be a functioning human being again, and she suddenly throws it all away because of some psychic? It didn't make sense, felt contrived, a plot device to keep the story moving and avoid it getting bogged down in the mental hospital.

So I feel like this is getting a little long, so I will skip ahead to what I consider the third part of Dolores's life, when she leaves Dante and moves back into her Grandmother's house. And I will skip most of that, because it was dull and uneventful (she puts her life back together, grand) and go to the part that stuck out for me the most. That was the contrived fight she has with Rita, where Rita falls down the stairs and ends up in the hospital. What the fuck was that all about? I mean, seriously, where did that come from? Everything is going great. Rita tells Dolores she should buy a car with her money, Dolores is leaning towards a satellite and big television. So she gets it. Fair enough? Apparently not. Apparently Lamb is angry that not enough people read these days (rightfully so, I would say, but that is beside the point) and continued his quest to make television out to be one of the main villains in Dolores life, by having the television lead her into another depression (which he lazily tries to attribute to sudden recurrent sad feelings about Dante, but it doesn't fly. We are basically left to assume that the TV just plain makes her lazy. Period.). And so Rita comes over and, apparently, yells that Dolores should have bought a car instead of a big TV, which leads Dolores to freak out and scream at her and Rita falls, and Dolores gets more depressed and starts walking around in 3-D glasses all the time. I mean, are you serious? Did I miss something? Just bullshit. Plain and simple. It's as if Lamb felt there wasn't enough heartache, that things were going too well and he didn't want to end the story just yet. (Which also explains the return of Mr. Pucci, because, after all, what story set in the mid 80's is complete without a personal reference to the AIDS epidemic?).

In summation, I felt the book was trite and contrived.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
July 15, 2008 – Shelved

Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I agree that the story itself may not have been presented in the best possible way. It IS a bit sensationalized and the way she gets from point A to point, well, D is definitely a bit contrived.

On the other hand, (and the reason this book did so well to begin with) the way he presents the men in her life still sort of make sense if you're looking at it from the perspective of a girl or woman who has lived through any of those things.

My personal experiences weren't remotely the same but were similar enough that his representations of Jack/Dante characters was kind of the best part of the book. They both start out as these incredibly idealized versions of themselves (after all, the commentary seems to move in sort of a real-time way) until reality sinks in and all of those fears and doubts become justified. Most women who have been in truly bad relationships can all name specific moments where they -knew- something was off and ignored it anyway. It's just how it goes.

As for her descent into madness? This is an extreme example for sure (and I'm sure the therapy thing was a tribute to the times, when that whole coming out of the womb thing was the trend), but many women (and men!) who have suffered sexual abuse follow a lot of those patterns. They may eat their emotions or they may harm themselves. Some because very promiscuous and others withdraw completely and/or fear intimacy. The only real difference between this story and real life is that it is all happening to one person - which is definitely not the norm.

I get where you were coming from. You said yourself, in the first paragraph that most of what you were reading was foreign to you. Still, I give you this perspective because it can't hurt to know. Particularly since (sadly) most of the women you have met or will meet in your life have dealt with some variation of these feelings at some level at some point in their life.

Patrick I appreciate your perspective. As you mentioned, it's a perspective that I simply can never fully understand due to the limitations of my gender, and while I might never fully agree with the opinions of the people who love the book and appreciate the characterizations, your comment does help to understand it better.

Spider the Doof Warrior I do agree with your review, dude. You're right. It's not being a dude that made you hate the book and not see the character's point of view.
It's just that it's not a totally good book. I'm a woman... Not a stereotypical one and it just fell flat when I read it 2 more times -_-

Katherine Yes - very good review. I actually also found a lot of the female characterizations (not to confuse with the female voices) trite and paper-thin as you put it. And I think that's because the behaviors and such weren't consistent with what I've seen in psychology. If the purpose was to make the main character have more depth by being more complicated, either the psychology needed to be right on ALL the time instead of just some of the time OR the main character would have manifested a sort of "out of the box" disorder that makes sense within psychology.

After I read the book, I challenged my husband to come up with the most ridiculous plot devices and characters he could to see if they were in the book. He was right about every single one except no one from the book was actually abducted by aliens (though there was that one woman in the writing class had that weird idea about her space-opera sci-fi I think including some sort of Boy George Worship. : )

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Now you know how women feel considering most of the books in the world the female characters are lacking in depth and horribly represented.

message 6: by Kate (new) - rated it 1 star

Kate Mathiesen I didn't finish reading your review, but liked it simply for your profile pic of Salinger.

bananya I love the review. Forget about the POV argument, I am a broad and I hated this book, not because the voice is false & contrived, but because I would hate to know these characters. I wanted to kick them and Wally-Gator...

message 8: by Tia (new) - rated it 2 stars

Tia Perfect review. And I say this as a woman with divorced parents who was sexually abused as a child & made poor relationship choices as an adult. This book was ridiculous.

Rachel I'm just going to touch on a few things here because my thought process is a little bit different. I do love your review, though.

Regarding Jack and Dante: I agree that there a parallels between these two men. It does seem odd that they start out as such awesome guys and turn into, basically, monsters. The explanation I always turned to is that we're seeing them as Dolores saw them. In the beginning, she saw them as handsome, funny, smart guys. They were essentially "perfect". However, as she got to know them, they evolved, not just in the novel but in her mind, as well.

Jack is twitchy and short-tempered; she doesn't know this about him until he starts giving her rides home from school. He is perhaps a touch inappropriate; again, she doesn't know this until he tickles her feet on the balcony.

The same can be said for Dante. He's inappropriately attracted to young girls, but Dolores doesn't know this until they're living together and attend his school's dance. He treats her poorly and is also short-tempered; again, these are things she learns, and therefore we learn, after they have been together for a while.

And the reason I have always been drawn to for Dante choosing to be with Dolores is pretty simple; she's there. She does things for him (house cleaning, ironing, cooking). He gets pretty pissy when she STOPS doing those things, even though she's clearly going through a breakdown due to the abortion, so we can see that the order of his life is more important than her emotional well-being. He also has no real problem cheating on her, multiple times, with his ideal woman (young, attractive, student). Basically, with Dolores, he has it all. He wants sex, she's there for sex. He wants dinner, she makes dinner. He doesn't want children, she has an abortion. She's easy, she's pliable.

As for the television in the end, I can understand that pretty well and it actually makes sense on its' own. I think what Lamb was trying to do here is show how easy it can be to slip back into known behaviors. Food and television were her comforts and she was dangerously close to accepting them as her comforts, again. I don't think the television made her depressed - I think depression is something that people battle their entire lives and, with such a dramatic life-change (the losses of her grandmother and husband) she was in a low place and turned to those things that had numbed the pain in the past. Roberta (not Rita, btw, Rita is Jack's wife) knew from Dolores' teenage years that it was a pattern and wanted to stop it as soon as possible. I think her falling might have been the catalyst to bringing Dolores back from that edge.

I can understand how people don't like this book. There are definitely things that bother me about it. I just wanted to share my thoughts on your thoughts. :)

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