Wally Lamb's first novel, She's Come Undone, was published in 1996 and skyrocketed to the top of best-seller lists when it became an Oprah's Book Club selection. Lamb introduces Dolores Price, the heroine, who brings readers along on the journey of her life from age four to forty. Finding solace in food, Dolores eats her way through tragedy after tragedy including the abandonment of her father, the emotional instability of her mother, rape, death, and mental illness. Dolores finds herself on the threshold of adulthood tipping the scales at over 250 pounds. It is as though she was destined for the sorrow for which she was named from the start.
Having spend her formative years eating in front of the television while watching soap operas, Dolores is virtually unable to relate to people when she begins her freshman year of college. As such, Dolores attempts suicide and, as a result, spends the next seven years in an institution. Not to be deterred, however, Dolores emerges from the experience ready to face the world once again. Her road to self-discovery and self-confidence, however, is not without difficulties along the way. Dolores's determination and fight to find self-worth in the face of societal pressures is charted over the course of the novel. Many readers will relate to the struggles Dolores endures as well as to her resolve to succeed once she finds it.
Since its publication, readers have commented over and over at Lamb's masterful portrayal of women. He renders Dolores as a downtrodden victim who somehow miraculously maintains her sense of humor and ultimately develops the self-esteem she has been missing all along. Dolores's voice resonates with readers long after they have finished Lamb's novel.
Lamb's breakthrough novel was named a finalist for the 1992 Los Angeles Book Awards' Art Seidenbaum Prize for first fiction. Lamb's other novels include I Know This Much Is True and The Hour I First Believed. She's Come Undone has been translated into eighteen languages and is read worldwide.
Chapter 1 Summary
She's Come Undone is a near-epic-length novel (465 pages) that follows the troubled life of Dolores Price from age four to age forty.
As the novel opens, readers meet four-year-old Dolores. It is 1956, and her family has just received their first television set. Four-year-old Dolores is fascinated, but, as forty-year-old Dolores now knows, that television "would be the beginning of our family's unraveling."
How that "unraveling" comes to pass takes a while for Dolores to understand. She begins by thinking about her father, who works as a property manager for Mrs. Masicotte. At age six, Dolores begins accompanying him on his many visits to his boss. Mrs. Masicotte and her father laugh and drink and generally ignore Dolores. It is clear to Dolores that "Daddy's" job involves a good deal more than collecting rent and fixing broken appliances.
Mrs. Masicotte gives her father lots of gifts, including Dolores's beloved television set. As the family watches various programs, her father occasionally utters racial epithets—another indication that Dolores's father is not a kind or tolerant person.
The gifts continue to come, each one larger than the other. The biggest is a used car that her father insists he bought from "the old lady." The visits between employee and boss become longer and more frequent, with bored Dolores in tow, stuck in Masicotte's stuffy living room with her ill-tempered cocker spaniel.
Not long after the purchase of the car, Dolores's mother has a big secret she shares with the family. She is pregnant. For many months, Dolores thinks about the baby. On Valentine's Day, Dolores is at school; she is surprised when her grandmother comes to pick her up instead of her mother.
There is bad news. The baby, whom they had named "Anthony, Jr.," died while Dolores's mother was giving birth; the cord wrapped around the baby's neck and strangled him, her father tearfully tells Dolores. She is surprised by her father's emotion.
The day before her mother comes home from the hospital, Dolores and her father load all of Anthony, Jr.'s things into the big car and drive them to the dump. "Daddy" instructs Dolores that their "job was to cheer Ma up and not even mention the baby."
Grandmother comes to stay with the family. Dolores's mother suffers from what doctors would now easily recognize as postpartum depression. Young Dolores seems to think that the presence of her grandmother is causing her mother's sadness. Dolores says that she wants her grandmother gone. The grandmother leaves. Dolores feels powerful in her ability to make people do what she demands.
Chapter 2 Summary
Four years have passed since the death of Anthony, Jr. Dolores is now ten-and-a-half years old. The family has moved to a larger home, one of Mrs. Masciotte’s many properties. The move is good for Dolores. Her near-obsessive television watching is curtailed when she meets another girl her own age in the neighborhood, Jeannette.
Dolores has other reasons to avoid her home. Her mother’s postpartum depression has not abated. In fact, it has become more severe. She has developed obsessive-compulsive habits, such as counting the seconds that pass on the stove’s timer and answering the phone on a specific ring. Her largest obsession, however, is a pet parakeet that she has named Petey, a gift from Dolores's father in an effort to curb her mother's melancholy.
Dolores begins to resent the amount of affection her mother bestows on the bird. She understandably considers him a rival. Dolores decides to try to hurt her mother by refusing to kiss her anymore. She claims that since her mother kisses Petey on the beak, she is likely to contract a “bird disease.”
Dolores is beginning to have questions about sex, but her mother, wrapped in her own blanket of sadness, is not approachable. Dolores learns what she can via the imperfect knowledge of Jeanette, “eavesdropping, process of elimination, and filling in the blanks.” The two friends plan out their lives together: where they will live, their husbands’ names, and how many children they will have. The fantasy life makes them both happy.
One day, Dolores’s father comes home from work and announces a surprise. He is going to have an in-ground pool installed in the backyard. Dolores is ecstatic. Her mother, however, is panicked. Among her obsessions are children dying in freak accidents, and she is sure that a pool will soon drown any number of neighborhood toddlers. The adults get into a fight about the pool, and Dolores is told to go outside. She can hear...
(The entire section is 657 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
Dolores’s mother is having a nervous breakdown. She stays in her robe and does not wash her hair. One morning, she awakens to find Petey dead at the bottom of his cage. She becomes even more despondent and uncommunicative.
Dolores is in the home virtually alone. Her father has not only to another city, but he has taken up with a new woman and opened a flower shop with his girlfriend. Despite his distance and separation, Dolores calls him, frightened by her mother’s behavior. It is decided that Dolores must go live with her grandmother.
The move away from Jeanette and familiarity proves difficult for Dolores. She is tormented by two bad-tempered twin girls, Rosalie and Stacia, every day as she walks to school. To make matters worse, Jeanette stops sending letters. Dolores feels very alone.
One day, she receives an unexpected package from her mother, who has lived in a mental hospital since Dolores alerted her father. The painting is one she had created in art therapy. It is odd to say the least. A woman’s disembodied leg floats against a blue sky and clouds. On the foot is a red high-heeled shoe. From its thigh “grew parakeet-green wings.” Dolores does not know what to make of the painting. She hides it behind her bed.
In August, Grandma enrolls Dolores in parochial school, a first for the former public school student. Dolores is scared; she has heard nothing but frightening stories about Catholic school. To make matters worse, the twins also go to St. Anthony’s.
At lunchtime, Dolores tries to sit with various students but is shunned or ignored. Back in class, Dolores discovers one of the photographs in her history textbook has been altered to look as if the teenagers in the photo are saying pornographic things.
The twins continue to make life miserable for Dolores, especially Rosalie. Dolores has an idea. When Rosalie’s attention is turned elsewhere, Dolores exchanges her history textbook for Rosalie’s. Then, at confession, Dolores claims that she did not tell anyone that she had seen Rosalie create “filthy, immoral things” in her book. For her omission, she asks for forgiveness.
At the end of the day, there is a “surprise” inspection of students’ textbooks. Rosalie, of course, is caught, and her punishment is very severe. Every afternoon for the next month, Rosalie must stand with her nose in the center of an X on the blackboard.
Dolores returns home, immensely pleased with herself and her ability once again to feel covertly powerful. As a reward, she eats a bag of potato chips and two dishes of pudding. Before she goes to sleep, she hangs her mother’s picture above her bed.
Chapter 4 Summary
Dolores’s mother comes home from the hospital in January, but to Dolores, this person seems to be both her mother and not her mother. She has lost a lot of weight. Her eyebrows are plucked. She smokes. She has developed a twitch.
Ma has decided that she needs to go back to work. Grandma lines up a janitorial job at the rectory, but her mother refuses to take it. The generation gaps between grandmother, mother, and granddaughter create tension all around. Grandma disapproves of her mother’s choices in life, claiming that in her day, “women knew their place.” Grandma and Dolores spar over her granddaughter's love of The Beatles.
Ma tries to bond with Dolores. She invites her to go on walks, which...
(The entire section is 525 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Dolores gets to know her new upstairs neighbors. Rita Speight, twenty-eight years old, is beautiful, “like a little China doll.” She works as a pediatrics nurse. Jack Speight, twenty-five years old, is a disc jockey for a local rock-and-roll station. The house immediately becomes merrier. Dolores’s mother seems quite smitten by Jack. Even Grandma is charmed. Dolores is thrilled to have such liveliness in her home.
The Speights end up going to the same church as their landlords. One Sunday, Rita invites the three women upstairs for a dinner. Nothing fancy, she promises, just tacos and chili.
The three arrive right on time. Rita flings open the door, shouting “Ole!” and they all admire her velvet...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
It is the first day of the new school year. Dolores is not happy about returning to school, and she is itchy in her woolen uniform. She thinks about how Jack is leaving for work around the same time she goes to school. She imagines him dropping her off in front of everyone in his sporty MG, to the envy of all lucky enough to see her.
But that morning, Jack had departed earlier than usual. Dolores dejectedly trudges to school. Upon her return home that afternoon, Dolores complains of a stomach ache. Her mother passes it off as eating too much greasy food. Dolores deliberately hurts her mother’s feelings by saying that the next time her mother goes crazy, Dolores will tell her it is due to bad eating habits. Her mother...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Jack begins picking Dolores up from school several days a week, but never on specific days. He is moody: one day he is jovial; the next, morose. On his depressed days, he complains to Dolores about his life with Rita and the upcoming, oppressive responsibility of having to provide for both her and a baby. Some days, their route home would be long and circuitous for no apparent purpose. Dolores tells her grandmother she has joined a club at school to cover up for the days she comes home late. When she is home, Dolores begins comforting herself more often with food.
Dolores has fantasies about Rita and her baby, imagining that Rita is too infirm to care for the child and hands it over to Dolores to raise with Jack. At...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Chapter 8 begins Part 2 of She’s Come Undone. This section is titled “Whales.”
The chapter opens with an introduction to Dolores’s high school guidance counselor, Mr. Pucci. Dolores recalls that he had been her “only friend during my miserable three and a half years at the school.”
Mr. Pucci calls Dolores his “pal.” The two spend a lot of time talking in his office. Many of the other students make fun of the counselor. He lisps and seems effeminate. Dolores, however, is protective and defends him. Mr. Pucci defends Dolores as well. Since her freshman year, Dolores has gone from being slightly overweight to obese. When, as a gag, some of the football players nominate Dolores for...
(The entire section is 598 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
Dolores bides her time at home, dreading the day when she must leave for Merton. One day, she is surprised to find an enthusiastic letter from her roommate-to-be, a girl named “Kittpy Strednicki.” Despite the letters, Dolores still does not want to go. She and her mother argue. Ma says she does not want Dolores to end up like her, but she was tired of fighting about it. Dolores, despite having “won” the argument, feels adrift.
At 3:15 that morning, Dolores is awakened by voices in the parlor. A police cruiser is outside. She hears bits of the conversation as she silently creeps down the stairs: "an out-of-state truck," "asleep at the wheel," "out of the booth." Ma has been killed in a freak accident at the...
(The entire section is 480 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
It is getting closer to September and the time Dolores must leave her grandmother’s home and go live in the dorms at Merton. To her surprise, Grandma hands Dolores her mother’s bank book. Dolores is shocked to discover that her mother has been saving for her college education for years, depositing money into the account every two weeks until the day she died.
Dolores begins writing letters more frequently to her roommate-to-be, Kippy. In the letters, she invents a life for herself that does not exist in reality: professional jobs for her parents and an English boyfriend named “Derrick.” Kippy writes back, and as the two correspond, Kippy reveals more about her life and Dolores continues to create fanciful lies...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
The wallpaper man shows up for the job. He looks like a hippie with long, curly hair and shirtless overalls. He is also quite cheerful. He asks Dolores if there is a radio he can listen to while he works.
Dolores has prepared for the arrival of a male stranger in her home by hiding knives in every room of the house, just in case this man might try to rape her. Even though he seems harmless, she is still uncomfortable being alone in the house with him. She decides to go visit Mr. Pucci, who lives about five miles away. Dolores calls a taxi.
When she arrives and rings the bell, Dolores is surprised when a man she does not know opens the door. He tells her Mr. Pucci is not home. Dolores is forlorn. She asks if...
(The entire section is 507 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
After a grueling ten-hour bus ride, Dolores arrives at Merton College and her dorm. Something is amiss though. The parking lot is empty, and there is not a soul to be seen. For a few minutes, she entertains fantasies of the college having shut down. She decides to tap on the glass of her dorm building and is surprised when a cleaning woman comes to the door.
The cleaning woman wants to know what Dolores is doing there so early. She says students are not expected for another week. Dolores is incredulous. She is certain she has the right date. She hurriedly paws through her suitcase in order to find the letter from Merton to prove herself in the right. Of course, it is she who is mistaken. The date she mistook for her...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
A week finally passes, and the students begin arriving in droves to the campus. Kippy, Dolores's new roommate, is among them, the girl with whom she had been exchanging letters all summer. In those letters, Dolores invented a life for herself much more interesting than the one she truly lived. Dolores also neglected to mention her weight problem.
When Kippy bursts into their shared dorm room, along with her mother and father, she is dumbfounded. Dolores is in the middle of consuming a birthday cake; her jeans are unsnapped. No one says a word. They all stare at Dolores. Kippy is confused; she thinks she must have the wrong room. Kippy is expecting the person from those letters, not the fat woman who stands before her....
(The entire section is 555 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
In an attempt to assuage her guilt about reading Kippy’s letters, and as an attempt to fit in and be accepted, Dolores becomes Kippy's errand runner. Dolores performs all kinds of tasks for her injured “friend.” Dolores pictures herself as Juliet’s nurse from Romeo and Juliet, “a good-hearted fussbudget, a woman who spoke her piece but knew her place.”
When Kippy decides that Dolores will be the one to send and retrieve her mail, Dolores moves from just reading Kippy's correspondence to actually stealing it. Dolores reads and keeps Dante’s letters and trashes those Kippy writes to Dante. Dolores justifies her actions by telling herself that Kippy does not deserve Dante and she is doing him a favor...
(The entire section is 587 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
Preparations are in full-swing for Hooten Hall’s Halloween party. Naomi and Dolores are relatively safe as they serve spiked punch behind a table. The evening is going tolerably well until Eric, one of the boys from another dorm, thinks that it will be great fun to pick on Dolores. He grabs her by the wrist and pretends to dance with her, becoming more sexually aggressive with each passing second. Dolores reacts instinctively and knees Eric hard in the groin. He collapses in pain. Dolores runs away.
Dolores thinks about the immediate aftermath of Eric’s assault. She remembers how she hid behind a dumpster, shivering for hours. When she finally returned to her dorm room, she discovered that Eric had trashed all of...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Dolores sits in the cab and tries not to think at all as mile after mile stretches on from Philadelphia to Cape Cod. She tries to quash any conversation her driver, Domingos, initiates, but eventually it is Dolores who begins talking. She asks Domingos if he believes in God. He is incredulous and says that he does. Dolores does not want to believe that any god would allow her mother to die.
As they continue on in relative silence, Dolores begins to contemplate suicide. She thinks that the world would be better “rid of the the Fat Girl Monster.” She takes some satisfaction in imagining the guilt Eric and Kippy will feel when they learn of her death.
When the driver stops for gas, Dolores goes inside and...
(The entire section is 540 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
Chapter 17 begins Part 3 of She’s Come Undone and is titled “The Flying Leg.”
Dolores has had a nervous breakdown. She has been institutionalized at a facility called “Gracewood,” where, she recalls, she spent the next seven years of her life. Geneva Sweet, her mother’s friend, had located Dolores in Cape Cod via the clues about the beached whales. It is Geneva who is paying for Dolores’s care.
Dolores is unable to recall most of her earlier years at Gracewood, as most of the time she was tranquilized and did little else other than stare at a television. She is given forced injections and feels violated, as if she is being raped all over again.
Dolores goes through a number...
(The entire section is 442 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Dolores continues her “re-parenting” work with Dr. Shaw. Emotionally, she is now at age ten. Dr. Shaw takes her to a toy store for her “birthday” and tells her to select a gift. Dolores chooses an “Etch-a-Sketch." Dolores becomes mesmerized with the device. Dr. Shaw becomes annoyed with her when, during their sessions, she focuses on little else other than making new drawings. For Dolores, she feels she is “sketching (her) way to adolescence.”
Two years later, it is 1973. Dolores takes a huge leap, moving from the hospital to Gracewood’s “halfway house.” Emotionally, according to Shaw, Dolores is now twelve; it is one year before she will be raped. Dolores refuses to talk about it in therapy, despite...
(The entire section is 407 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
Dolores continues her therapy with Dr. Shaw, and through their work together, she achieves the ability to see her mother not as a “saint or a whore, but a fallible, sexual woman.” Dealing with her father is the next emotional mountain to climb. Dolores senses there is some sort of commonality between her father’s behavior and that of Jack Speight's, but she is not ready to deal with the implications of making that connection. She understands, however, that while her father was flawed, he was not what Jack was: a rapist.
It is now 1975. Dolores has been at Gracewood’s halfway house for two years. Dr. Shaw begins to hint that it is time to get a job. He knows of a position at a photo developing company. Dolores is...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
Dolores is still working for the photo developing company. One day, she is processing a roll of film from a high school senior trip. As she flips through the various shots of smiling teenaged boys and girls, Dolores is shocked to recognize Dante as their teacher. The girl who had taken the shots, Eddie Ann, obviously has quite a crush on Mr. Davis. There are many shots of him at various times of the day and in various poses. Some he is aware of, and some he is not.
Dante's appearance in the photos seems like a sign to Dolores. She begins to think of Dante as her destiny, even though he looks nothing like the “husband” she had drawn for Nadine, the psychic.
Through the address Eddie Ann has provided for...
(The entire section is 566 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
It is not long before Dolores takes over many of Dante's domestic chores. She washes his clothes. She irons his shirts. She vacuums his apartment. Dante nicknames her “Home Ec.”
One evening, as she is giving Dante a back massage, Dolores considers all the lies she has told him, both directly and by omission. There are small lies, like being a water color artist, and big lies, like saying she is on the "Pill." Her lies by omission include, of course, how she came to be in Rhode Island and her connection with Kippy in college.
When she is not caring for Dante, Dolores is at work. Shortly after arriving, she got a job at Grand Union, the local supermarket. Dolores really longs for a friend to talk to. She...
(The entire section is 680 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
Dolores schedules an appointment for an abortion, but she does not want to go through with it. She is sure that the baby is a girl and has even named her: Vita Marie. She thinks that maybe Dante would love the baby if he actually saw her. She tells him that she has made the appointment one night as they prepare dinner. She hopes that he will take this last opportunity to change his mind. He says nothing about it. Instead, he tells her he has been invited to go skiing with a friend that weekend, but he will not go if she wants him to stay. He says he should be with her and help her through it, but his words are hollow and Dolores knows it.
Dante leaves for his ski vacation. Dolores cannot bear the thought of going...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
It is 1978. One spring afternoon, Dolores and Dante are invited to the new home of one of Dante's faculty members for dinner. Boomer and his wife, Paula, are exceedingly proud of their pre-fab home. Paula delights in telling Dolores how she got to customize all the features, right down to the dining room cabinets. She brags about how their sex life has improved since Boomer now feels so useful doing handyman tasks around the place. Dolores is envious—not of their home, but of their happiness.
Dolores thinks that if she and Dante also became homeowners, perhaps their marriage would improve too. She even hopes that if Dante becomes more content, he might change his mind about not wanting a baby. She begins saving as...
(The entire section is 676 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
As Dante and Dolores continue their pointless, three-week road trip, Dolores realizes that the baby she aborted, Vita Marie, would have just had her first birthday. She has an incredibly clear vision of what her child would have looked like, even what she smells like. She considers the vision a gift, but from whom, she does not know.
When they finally see the road sign for New England, meaning they will be home soon, Dante strangely says he will be happy to “get home and get it over with.” What “it” is, Dolores does not know. Once they get to their house, Dante finally confesses. He has lost his job. Their sudden, long vacation, he says, was an attempt to “protect” her from “the gossip.”
(The entire section is 508 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary
On the drive back to Pennsylvania, Dante asks Dolores to take him back. He pleads for forgiveness and tells Dolores he needs her. Dolores is skeptical. She tells him she does not know why he would want her back; all he has ever done is criticize and correct her.
Before going to her grandmother's house, Dolores goes to the funeral home to make arrangements. When they arrive at her house, Dolores is taken aback by its emptiness. Grandma had sold off most of her possessions before her death. The home is almost bare. Hardest for Dolores to see is her mother's room; she is momentarily angry with her grandmother for not saving her mother's things. But then Dolores realizes her grandmother had been asking her for some time to...
(The entire section is 540 words.)
Chapter 26 Summary
Dolores and Dante begin divorce proceedings and split up their property via telephone. Roberta and Dolores spend much more time together; the relationship is mutually beneficial. Roberta suffers from Parkinson's disease, so Dolores helps her with chores her shaking hands cannot perform, such as doing the laundry. Roberta helps Dolores to overcome Dante's years emotional abuse, and she encourages Dolores to pursue a new life. Dolores takes the remnant she had salvaged of her mother's painting and has it framed, replacing the wedding picture of herself and Dante that had hung in the stairwell.
A short time later, Dolores gets a job at a gift shop. She helps Roberta make her home lighter and airier. Roberta continues her...
(The entire section is 429 words.)
Chapter 27 Summary
It is now 1984, two years since Dolores's divorce and her grandmother's death. The house is in need of repairs, a fact that cannot be denied when the ceiling begins to collapse. Cement chunks fall randomly and without warning. Both Roberta and Denise fear they will be hurt, but repair estimates are staggering. The two women do not have enough money to get the work done.
Eating dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant, Roberta gets an idea. She proposes to the owner that she and Dolores start a delivery service. It is an immediate success and before long, the necessary money for the repairs has been saved.
Dolores is keeping very busy. In addition to their evening deliveries, she has also decided to enroll...
(The entire section is 659 words.)
Chapter 28 Summary
Dolores is now thirty-four. Panic about AIDS has become wide-spread and irrational. Mr. Pucci's HIV positive status becomes a case of full-blown AIDS. When he goes in for testing and procedures, a nurse recognizes him as one of her son's teachers. She reports his status to the school board, an act that gets her fired but also causes Mr. Pucci to lose his job. He is too weak to fight for it. He decides to sell the home he had long shared with Gary. AIDS has affected his eyesight; he is going blind and can no longer tend to the household.
Dolores has a great deal to be concerned about these days. Not only does she worry about Mr. Pucci's and Roberta's declining health, she and Thayer are also trying to get pregnant. On...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
Chapter 29 Summary
In the final chapter of She's Come Undone, Dolores and Thayer are in the waiting room of a doctor's office. Both are nervous. To cope, Dolores tries to remain perfectly still. Thayer, on the other hand, chatters incessantly. Dolores notices that the walls are painted mauve, a color psychologists have deemed "soothing." Dolores feels anything but soothed.
When the doctor finally comes in with a plain manila folder, he does not keep them in suspense. He apologizes and tells the couple, “The procedure was not successful.” The doctor goes into detail about what...
(The entire section is 402 words.)