She's Come Undone is the first novel published by Wally Lamb. It was published in 1992, and became a bestseller, as well as being a selection in Oprah's Book Club. The book follows the biography, from childhood to her middle age, of Delores Price, a woman who struggles with mental illness and family problems.
To explain the book, the best place to start would be to with the Oprah's Book Club thing. I have heard jokes and references that many of her selections deal with persecution of a victim by a cruel, male world. This book could be the locus classicus of that stereotype. The basic plot and theme of the book is Delores Price stumbling from one persecution and disaster to another. Some of these are at the hands of men, some at the hands of women, and some at the hands of society in general. Perhaps in 1992, the persecution of women by an uncaring society was news, but from my jaded viewpoint of 2010, the book seems like a Lifetime Movie. I am not being callous in saying this: I think that its an important thing to address traumatic events, but the way the book develops, I just feel it is exploitive. Every time a new character or situation was introduced, I started asking myself: "how long before this turns into assault or torment or abuse?"
And this is a two-fold problem. I am not fond of the social message it sends, but to me, it also fails as literature. The book is well-written, and the plot and characterization make sense in most ways. Which is why I wonder why there is not (until, perhaps, the concluding chapters) any type of self-insight by the main character, or any glimpse by her of anything bigger than her own troubles. For example, Delores Price attends Catholic schools, and the nuns are held up as stock villains, being petty, controlling and closed-minded. At no point is even a glimpse given of a sympathetic nun who behaves kindly or gives any kind of guidance. This is not just because the book is some sort of polemic against organized religion (although it may be that, as well), it is because just about everything in the book is portrayed in the worst light possible.
Of course, this could be due to me trouble separating the author from the narrator from the protagonist. It could be possible that Lamb is attempting some deep satire, making a parody of Delores Price and her train wreck of self-pity and self-destruction. But I think he is in earnest, which makes me wonder why are we supposed to sympathize with Delores Price. She hates her father and will not speak to him because he was an adulterer who abused her mother, which while it is bad, barely seems like the cornerstone of a lifetime of estrangement and a basis for self-loathing. Meanwhile, years later when she is employed by a pair of holocaust survivors, they are mentioned mostly for their fussy ways and funny accents. Although the book does explain and describe a lot, I never quite understood what was so extreme about Delores Price's life that she spent years in a mental hospital, other than she is just a short-sighted and selfish person who is violently ignorant of everything around her.
In the last few chapters, the book is redeemed somewhat when she finally sets aside her self-destructive behavior and gets into some positive relationships. But by that time, I am wondering why I have spent hundreds of pages reading. What type of book this is probably depends on what type of book Wally Lamb was trying to write: if he was writing a satire of suburban mores and the tawdriness and pettiness of life, he would have succeeded. If he was trying to write a book about the triumph of the human spirit, he failed.