In the prologue, which takes place in 1985, Rose Daniels's husband, Norman, beats her while she is four months pregnant, causing her to suffer a miscarriage. Rose briefly considers leaving Norman but dismisses the idea: Norman is a policeman, and is excellent at finding people. Norman also has... read more (warning: may contain spoilers)
In the prologue, which takes place in 1985, Rose Daniels's husband, Norman, beats her while she is four months pregnant, causing her to suffer a miscarriage. Rose briefly considers leaving Norman but dismisses the idea: Norman is a policeman, and is excellent at finding people. Norman also has a violent temper and was recently accused of assaulting an African-American woman named Wendy Yarrow. The subsequent lawsuit and Internal Affairs investigation has made him even more volatile.
The story then jumps ahead to a morning nine years later, when Rose is making the bed. She notices a drop of blood on the sheet that had probably leaked from her nose the night before — Norman had punched her in the face for spilling some iced tea on him. Rose realizes that she has passively suffered through Norman's abuse for fourteen years and that if she continues to put up with this treatment, she might be killed. But then Rose wonders: what if Norman doesn't kill her? What will she be like after fourteen more years of Norman "talking to her right up close", as he puts it?
Rose (who whimsically begins to think of herself as "Rosie Real", in homage to Maurice Sendak's children's musical Really Rosie) then makes the difficult decision to leave her home, located in an unnamed city in the Northeast and take the first bus out of town. After Rose arrives at her destination, an unnamed city in the Midwest, she is disoriented and afraid. When she arrives at the bus station, she meets a man named Peter Slowik, to whom she briefly describes her situation, and she is given directions to a women's shelter called "Daughters and Sisters", or D&S for short. There, she quickly makes several friends and, with the help of the D&S director, gets an apartment and a job as a hotel housekeeper.
A few weeks later Rose decides to pawn her engagement ring, but learns that it is worthless. Before she leaves the pawnshop, however, she notices a painting of a woman in a rose madder gown and immediately falls in love with it. She trades her ring for the painting, which strangely enough has no artist's signature. Outside, a stranger asks her to read a passage from a novel, and is so impressed that he offers her a job recording audio books. Then, one of the workers at the pawnshop, Bill Steiner, asks her out. She and Bill become sweethearts. It seems that after suffering for years, Rose finally has everything she could want: a great job, a home of her own, friends and a loving, caring partner.
Unfortunately for Rose, Norman is determined to punish her for leaving him. Using his excellent tracking skills, he finds out where Rose went and begins to hunt her down. While Norman gets closer to finding Rose (and begins to lose what little self-control he has), Rose discovers that her new painting is not as ordinary as it appears.
For one thing, its image expands to show more of the painting's world. For another, Rose finds that she is able to enter the painting, much like how Alice steps through her mirror in Through the Looking-Glass. And on the other side, there is a woman called Dorcas who resembles Wendy Yarrow, and the woman in the rose-madder gown. Rose never learns this woman's real name so she refers to her as "Rose Madder", not only because of her outfit but also because she is insane and possibly dangerous. King provides many hints that the world of the painting is also the world of The Dark Tower, most notably references to the city of Lud.
Rose Madder asks Rosie to rescue her baby from an underground labyrinth which is the lair of a one-eyed bull called Erinyes (who appears to have been based on the Minotaur). Rose does so, and Rose Madder promises to repay her. Rose returns to her world and puts the strange incident at the back of her mind, but when Norman attacks some of her friends from D&S, murders the director, and then follows her to her apartment, she realizes that she will need a little help from Rose Madder.
Rosie tricks Norman into following her into the world of the painting, where he meets a particularly violent and gruesome end at the hands of Rose Madder. Rosie returns to her world and leads a normal life with no further summons from Rose Madder. She marries Bill and has a daughter but finds that the violent rages which characterized both Norman and Rose Madder have begun to spring up within her. She then remembers that Rose Madder, perhaps foreseeing the problem, gave her some magic seeds and told her to "remember the tree". Rosie plants the seeds in a secret grove by her favorite lake and finds the seeds grow into a beautiful but deadly tree. She then revisits that tree periodically for her remaining years as it grows and is able to release her rage and go on with her life
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