She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

August 15, 2013
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If you are reading this book review, chances are you’ve read a lot of book reviews. Hundreds. Thousands. Millions, if you’re dedicated. Maybe you read reviews before you read a book because you don’t want to waste your time. Maybe you read reviews because you think reading full books is a waste of time. Whatever. It really doesn’t matter much to me. Either way, you probably have a pretty good idea about how these things work: I blab on about syntax and metaphors, pepper the drawn out sentences with commentary about the author and his/her style, sprinkle a little life lesson about how this novel made me reconsider donating to Relay for Life or something like that. But you’ve read a lot of book reviews. This isn’t a book review. This is a life review.

She’s Come Undone is, in a nutshell, a coming-of-age story about trouble-magnet Dolores Price, written by Wally Lamb in the early 1990s. I don’t really know how I’m going to manage to tell you about me and Dolores, but I’ll give it a shot, so bear with me here.

I came across this novel at a month long summer honors program for advanced kids in my state. I went for Communicative Arts. I took one class about feminism, and the weekend reading was one hundred or so pages of She’s Come Undone. Tamara, the instructor, handed me the novel and I read the back with disdain. Coming of age, blah blah blah. I wanted to spend my weekend at concerts and performances and seminars, not reading in the library or worse my smelly dorm. Alas, I’m no rule breaker (though the homework was an expectation since we had no grades there). Anyway, I hunkered down Friday night and began the adventure with Dolores.

And I could not put her down. I couldn’t bear to tear my eyes from her vulnerable and honest words or let my fingers dare stray from her smooth glossy cover. I put an easy twelve years on the already dated library book merely in opening and closing in every spare second I could scavenge. I took her to concerts and read before the music. I took her to seminars and tucked her under my arm as I participated. I took her to the lawn and used her to swat flies as I devoured her story. I read her under the covers after lights out. I carried her everywhere that weekend and that week, comforted by the worn covers in my palm. I dreamed about her. I thought about her when I wasn’t reading about her. I talked to her sometimes, too.

When things went badly for her and she made them worse, I ranted to my friends and anyone else who asked what I was reading about her. When she fell down and wallowed there for chapters on end, I whined about her to people. But when they made a sour face and looked down their noses at her after what I’d said, I got angry because Dolores didn’t need their approval after all, and who were they to judge her? It didn’t matter to me that I’d just finished saying mean things about her to them. Dolores was mine and not theirs and they just didn’t understand her like I did. I had the right to say things about her, because I knew her and she did the same to people she loved so it wasn’t like I was doing anything she wouldn’t have. It was just me and Dolores and no one else had any right to say anything.

To say the least, Dolores and I had a love-hate relationship, as the more I hated her the more I loved her, but I suspect that she loved me the whole way, even when it wasn’t returned. Dolores Price became my sister, my mother, my best friend, and part of myself all the while remaining an alien, a stranger whose words I didn’t always understand, whose experiences I couldn’t always comprehend. But it didn’t matter, because she was teaching me.

But Dolores and I weren’t always friends. The first two parts of the novel I spent hating her downright meanness and pitying her inability to deal with what I’d never imagined could be so crippling. Perhaps it wasn’t Dolores’s horrible circumstances and resulting reactions that bothered me so much, but my own recognition of how sheltered, and thus naïve, I was. I’d never dealt with a divorce or a mother’s stillbirth or an estranged grandmother. I didn’t like Dolores sour attitude because I couldn’t understand what she felt all the time. Our distance only grew as the first two parts progressed. She developed mild daddy issues, her mother went insane, she was bullied. We were strangers adrift in the ocean together and I didn’t know how to make us friends.

The rest of the book would be torture, I was convinced. But, I dutifully read on, the observer of a catastrophe as Dolores world went from bad to worse and from there to hell. She was touched by death, by men, and by herself. I was disgusted with her as much as I pitied her. She was a sorry person, letting life beat her up and leave her for dead. Get up, I’d scream at her. Get up and do something about it! But all the while she just let the world push her down, responding occasionally with a snarky quip, but mostly leaving me unsatisfied and disappointed with her. She kept going through life though, gaining weight to the extreme, failing at human connections painfully, constantly losing herself among the chaos her life had become.

There were bright spots in all her gloom, and they came in the form of characters I can only hope to find in this world one day: her grandmother, Mr. Pucci, Roberta, Dr. Shaw, and eventually Thayer. They pushed her, guided her, and urged her along on her journey to self-discovery and every time she betrayed one or was unkind to them, as was her specialty, I punished her by closing her up on herself for a minute or two before diving back into her and walking along with her on the rocky and mountainous journey. I couldn’t imagine letting her go alone, and while nothing I did would change how the story was written, I still acted like it did, because Dolores wasn’t a book, but a human being. She was my companion, sitting next to me on my bed or in the library and telling me her tale in hushed tones and comforting me as I grieved her.
In my own way, I became Dolores Price. I lived in her skin and in her mind, and I loved everyone she loved and hated everyone she hated. I faced all the horrible things she did: death, rape, loss, bullying, pain, hatred, loathing, drugs, gluttony, AIDS, sexual frustration, hatred, bias, lunacy, blind love and so much more. I saw it all, did it all, without ever scarring my body or mind, only my heart carried the burden. She let me see and taste everything to being a woman, or even to being human for that matter, all the while never losing myself to it. I was living her, and it was beautiful for all its darkness. I cried for her, laughed with her, cursed her, and rooted for her all the way because for all her failings she deserved to be happy and find everything she was looking for merely because she had survived. She was a survivor of hell with all the scars and I loved every one.

So we made it to the end of the week, I read her soul and she nurtured mine and somewhere along the way I’d fallen in love with Dolores Price because she was beautiful and strong and so painfully human. At first, I was a little sad to think that she wasn’t real, that some man had made her up to tell a story or even turn a profit. But Dolores is real. She is every woman in the world. Even if I don’t experience everything that Dolores did, somewhere in my life, I will meet someone who had seen some of it, maybe all of it. I can find Dolores in every woman I ever meet. Dolores isn’t one, but all. Men, women, children—all of us are Dolores.

At the end of the week, when the class was finished, I had to return my copy of the book. I had to give Dolores back. It was probably the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, and that’s no exaggeration. Dolores was my best friend and part of myself, and it was painful to let her go. I told my instructor as much. She smiled, understanding my heart ache, and I handed over my book. I didn't hand over Dolores, not really, but it was easier to hold on to her with the book safe in my bag or in my hands. A week or two passed, and the last week of classes, I wound up again in Tamara’s class (two of my two actually). I was in her classroom during a break and she came up to me and handed me my own brand new copy of the book, one exactly like the one I loved so dearly. I opened it up and she had written me a little letter on the inside and it said: “Abigail ~ So you don’t have to give her back. Love her, take care of her, choose wisely for her, so she won’t come undone. She deserves only the best! Always, Tamara.”

My heart melted. It was beyond kind of her, to give me this beautiful gift, and it meant more to me that I could ever tell her. I read the note over and over, feeling like Dolores had written it there herself. And I knew from then on, that with Dolores in my heart, I’d never come undone.

So obviously it’s one of my favorite books ever and you should read it. Sure it’s kind of sad and bitter and disturbing but so is life and if you ever want to understand what it is to be human go live with Dolores for a week. You may return the book or leave it on your shelf to gather dust but Dolores will always be there for you. Just like she is for me. Tamara, too.

I saw her. I saw.

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