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Literature / Shes Come Undone

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"Mine is a story of craving: an unreliable account of lust and coveting that began, somehow, in 1956 on the day our free television was delivered."
Dolores Price, She's Come Undone

She's Come Undone is a 1992 novel by Wally Lamb, his debut. It wasn't a huge seller when it first came out, but after it became a selection in Oprah's book club in 1997, it was suddenly a huge hit. It is notable for being written by a male author, but narrated by a female protagonist. The novel follows the life of Dolores Price from age four to forty.

After her parents' divorce and her mother's mental breakdown, Dolores goes to live with her rigid, undemonstrative grandmother, where she drifts friendless through middle school. When her mother finally returns from the mental hospital with a new attitude and little time for her daughter, tensions rise between the three very different women. With no one else to confide in, Dolores develops an adolescent crush on their handsome upstairs tenant Jack, who takes advantage of her innocent affection by raping her.


Dolores spends the next few years isolated in her bedroom, numbing her pain with junk food and endless hours of television, and eventually graduates high school weighing over 250 pounds. Her only defense against a cruel world is a bitingly caustic mouth, which she uses to punish and manipulate the people she believes failed to protect her. But when her mother dies, Dolores' guilt drives her to fulfill her mother's final wish of seeing her daughter attend college, only to learn that the world outside her bedroom isn't much kinder than the halls of her high school. Alone, confused, and at the end of her rope, Dolores attempts suicide...but survives, spending the next seven years in a mental institution where she begins to put together the jagged, painful pieces of her life.

And that's only about half the book.


In spite of its unending parade of tragedy, heartbreak, and loss, She's Come Undone manages to have plenty of wit, warmth, hope, and redemption tucked between its pages, with a heroine who is both infuriating and utterly captivating. Even when she's at her least lovable, you can't help but root for Dolores to rise above adversity.

This book contains examples of:

  • The '50s: The decade in which Dolores is born. The book explores the dark shadow behind the white picket fence of suburbia, as Dolores' mother and father have a violently abusive relationship and go through a divorce due to his infidelity.
  • The '60s: Most of Dolores' adolescence. We get a glimpse at Woodstock, the moon landing, The Vietnam War, and the growing counterculture through her eyes.
  • The '70s: Dolores's married years. She tells her doctor that with the Bicentennial, she wants to experience her own independence, only to be caught up in the backlash of the Me Generation with her selfish husband. She even ends up with a Farrah Fawcett hairdo.
  • The '80s: The decade in which the book ends. Dolores befriends a gay couple and experiences firsthand the devastation of HIV/AIDS while dealing with her own mid-life crisis.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Starting from her move to Rhode Island, the neighborhood kids, as well as Dolores's schoolmates, ostracize her. Dolores is baffled because she had many friends back in Connecticut and doesn't understand what she's doing wrong now.
  • All Psychology Is Freudian: Subverted when Dolores's psychologist wants to try a radical "reparenting" therapy with her and must fight the other more traditional Freudian therapists in the hospital to obtain permission.
  • Animal Metaphor:
    • Whales appear literally and metaphorically throughout the book. At first it's hurled as an insult at Dolores's size. Later on, she comes to identify whales with power, freedom, and nurturing.
    • To a lesser extent, dogs are used to evoke male misogyny and violence after Dolores is raped near a dog pound and comes to associate the violent barking of the dogs with the assault.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Arguably Dante. Dolores stalks him, orchestrates their meeting without his knowledge, and lies about literally everything about herself in order to manipulate him into falling for her. But then, Dante's also a narcissistic, emotionally abusive child-molester, so it's hard to feel too sorry for him.
    • On the one hand, Dottie deliberately took advantage of Dolores's vulnerable emotional state in order to get her drunk and have sex with her. On the other, Dottie is clearly an emotionally disturbed and desperately lonely woman who didn't deserve to have the one thing she truly loved—her pet tropical fish—taken from her. Not to mention the fish are wholly innocent living creatures and it's never appropriate to harm an animal, no matter what their owner's done.
  • Big Eater: Dolores binges whenever something upsets her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Dolores comes to accept that she will always carry the grief for those she's lost and that her dream of having a child of her own will never come true. But she has a loving husband, a stepson, and a circle of unconventional but supportive friends.
  • Bury Your Gays: Mr. Pucci and his long-time partner Gary. May be Truth in Television, as this is during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.
  • Cool Old Lady: Roberta, the foul-mouthed but generous old broad who runs the neighborhood tattoo parlor.
  • Dirty Old Man: Chadley, still a complete pervert at 77.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Ma's death.
  • Epiphany Therapy: Subverted. Dolores finally confronts her issues with her mother and believes she's cured. She's not.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Dolores's mom, in an effort to revitalize her life, goes platinum blonde and suddenly attracts a new boyfriend every other week. Later, Dolores goes blonde in order to get some distance from her old self and ends up attracting a husband. Even later, she gets blonde highlights and ends up winning another husband. It's probably symbolic that when she's finally come to terms with herself, she only gets highlights: she's not concealing her true color (the way she attempted to conceal her past), but only enhancing it.
  • Food Porn: Possibly subverted, as while there's plenty of food presented, Dolores never seems to enjoy whatever she's binging on, and the descriptions of food aren't exactly tantalizing. One scene describes her as hacking apart a whole roast beef that grows more "purply-raw" the deeper she cuts, while swallowing whole the "cool, rubbery hunks" she isn't able to chew through. Another shows her cramming her mouth full of potato chips and soda and crunching them to a "sweet salty pulp."
  • Formerly Fat: Dolores eventually loses weight when she resolves some of the issues that drive her to binge. One of the first signs that she is losing control of her life is when she realizes she's gaining again. Dolores even refers to women she sees on Richard Simmons as "former fatties."
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: Deconstructed heavily. Dolores by this time is not a good girl—she's been deceiving her boyfriend about everything, including the fact that she's not on birth control—but by this point, we've lived with her through the emotional devastation that led her to lying. And Dante is definitely not the hero for pressuring her into aborting a child she very much wants. The whole thing is tragic, and the consequences haunt her for the rest of her life.
  • Her Own Worst Enemy: While a lot of bad things happen to her through no fault of her own, Dolores's own choices are the cause of a lot of her misery. She can be a terrible person, going from merely cruel and thoughtless to outright criminal. The book's saving grace is that it thoroughly explores the consequences of her behavior—she must earn her happy ending by making a conscious decision to be a better person.
  • Internal Reveal: We the reader already know everything about Dolores's past. It's Dante who gets the reveal dumped on him unexpectedly when Dolores blurts out everything she's been keeping from him.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Dolores is bullied from grade school through college.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Dolores very much wants a baby, but life keeps thwarting her plans.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: A psychic tells Dolores to use her Etch-A-Sketch to draw something that might make her happy. She tries to draw a whale, but inadvertently draws a man instead and wonders if it might be an image of her future husband. Years later, she realizes that the image she drew that day resembles Thayer, the man whose marriage proposals she keeps rejecting. The revelation moves her to finally say yes.
  • Meaningful Name: "Dolores" means "sorrow," and Dolores's life is a string of sorrowful events. This connection is made explicit as a character tells a young Dolores what her name means and asks her (jokingly) "why are you so sad?" (Her mom, on the other hand, explains that Dolores is actually named after Dolores del Río.)
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Subverted. Dolores suffers a mental breakdown and poisons several tanks of tropical fish in a misguided act of revenge.
  • One-Scene Wonder: Larry, Ruth, and Tia stay with Dolores for a weekend—long enough for Dolores to become deeply attached to them. They are never heard from again, although twenty years later, Dolores gets a fleeting glimpse of them in a documentary about Woodstock.
  • Post-Stress Overeating: Dolores is prone to massive binge-eating in the wake of stressful events. After deliberately skipping out on her high school graduation, she buys nearly $80 (in 1969 dollars!note ) of junk food and consumes all of it in a wild binge.
  • Psycho Lesbian: A mild example in Dottie, who in the course of a week becomes extremely possessive of Dolores and sustains her crush long after Dolores tells her to leave her alone. Later she takes advantage of a vulnerable and traumatized Dolores in order to get her drunk and have sex with her. Dottie's also implied to have some deep-rooted psychological problems.
  • Public Exposure: Dante sends some 1960s-style nude selfies to his girlfriend. Dolores steals them.
  • Rape as Drama: Dolores is violently raped at thirteen.
  • Stalker with a Crush: In a prolonged and wildly convoluted example, Dolores develops a sight-unseen crush on her college roommate's boyfriend Dante and sustains it for over seven years until, by sheer happenstance, she discovers where he lives. She moves to a state she's never been before and rents an apartment in his building, all so she can "accidentally" meet him and make him fall in love with her. Dante is aware of none of this until years after they've married, when Dolores finally tells him.
  • Suicide by Sea: Dolores embarks on an epic 12 hour cab drive to Cape Cod in order to drown herself in the ocean.
  • Symbolic Baptism: On multiple occasions, Dolores is shown taking refuge in water, associating it with safety and happiness:
    • One of her happiest childhood memories is a week's vacation alone with her father where the two of them spend practically all day, every day, swimming and playing in the family pool.
    • On the night she is raped, Dolores takes refuge in a scalding-hot bath.
    • Dolores has always lived near the coast and is distressed in college when, for the first time in her life, she can't hear the ocean.
    • The only time Dolores is truly at peace in college is at two in the morning when she can have the entire communal shower to herself.
    • When she breaks down and attempts suicide, she embarks on an epic cab drive to the coast in order to drown herself in the ocean.
    • Her "reparenting" with Dr. Shaw takes place in a pool after Shaw notes that Dolores seems drawn to water. She refers to the two of them as "a whale and her calf, a seal and her pup."
    • When Dolores takes to creating Etch-a-Sketch masterpieces, she enjoys drawing underwater scenes of mermaids and exotic fish.
    • There are several dream sequences that start off as nightmares until dream-Dolores manages to dive into water, where she finds herself safe and surrounded by loved ones.
    • After her unwanted and deeply regretted abortion, Dolores believes that she has a visitation from her unborn child while in a camp shower in the middle of nowhere.
    • In the final scene of the book, Dolores finally gets to see a living whale, who douses her in its spray; she refers to this soaking in spiritual terms as being "christened".
  • Teacher/Student Romance:
    • Dolores's husband Dante sleeps around with his (high-school-age) students.
    • Dante's a high school teacher with a number of very young female admirers.
    • Dolores admits that part of the reason she began to participate in therapy was because her doctor, a mentor figure, was such a hottie.
  • Time Skip: Several, since the novel traces her life from four to forty. The two most significant skips come immediately after being raped at thirteen, after which the book skips to just before her high school graduation, and right after her suicide attempt, where it resumes to find Dolores has been in a mental institution for the past several years.
  • Tragic AIDS Story: Again, handled fairly realistically: Mr. Pucci and his partner Gary both die of AIDS, but the focus is more on Mr. Pucci's grief, his uncertainty as he waits to see if he will develop the virus, and early 1980s misunderstanding and prejudice toward AIDS/HIV.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Dolores's whole life.
  • Trickster Twins: Stacia and Rosalie Pysyk have it in for Dolores from Day One and conspire to turn the whole 7th grade class against her.
  • Weight Woe: The entire novel deals Dolores's struggles with her weight and how she is defined by her body. Even when she loses weight, she refers to the angry, irrational, greedy side of her personality as "the fat girl" to distinguish it from the person she's trying to become. In truth, it's all just her.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: The book does not shy away from the fact that its protagonist treats people terribly and that she does a lot of questionable things. The Moral Event Horizon for many readers is the scene in which Dolores poisons several tanks of tropical fish in an act of misdirected revenge.

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