64 pages 2 hours read

Wally Lamb

She's Come Undone

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1992

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

She’s Come Undone is a realistic fiction novel written by Wally Lamb and originally published in 1992. Lamb demonstrates his penchant for creating detailed psychological character portraits in his debut novel, which is a coming-of-age story about a woman named Dolores Price. As the novel traces Dolores’s life from childhood through middle age in the mid-20th century, Lamb examines imbalanced power dynamics within relationships, intergenerational trauma and healing, the loss of innocence, and body image and self-worth.  

This guide refers to the 2012 Washington Square Press edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The source material, and this guide, contains descriptions of child sexual abuse, pregnancy loss, domestic violence, suicidal ideation, sizeism, and self-harm. The source material also uses racist, misogynist, and sizeist slurs, which are reproduced in this guide only in quotations.  

Plot Summary

Lamb divides She’s Come Undone into three parts focusing on different periods of the main character’s life, roughly following her childhood, teen years, and early adulthood, respectively.

In Part 1, Dolores Price narrates her earliest memories, starting in 1956. She is four years old, and the family has just received their first television. She considers it the moment that changed the course of her family’s future. When Dolores is seven, her mother Bernice has a stillborn baby, causing Bernice’s mental health to decline rapidly. Dolores’s father—Tony—and Bernice fight often, either about Bernice’s suspicions that Tony is having an affair with his boss or Tony’s frustration with Bernice’s mental health; Tony sometimes becomes violent with Bernice. One of Dolores’s only fond memories of Tony is when he took her to Fisherman’s Cove and told her about a whale that once got lost there. Dolores’s grandmother comes to stay, and her strict religious ideals only worsen Bernice’s condition.

When Dolores is 10, the family moves, and Bernice’s health worsens. Tony gifts Bernice a parrot, which she names Petey, but Bernice becomes obsessed with the parrot, neglecting her family. Tony responds by releasing it in anger. Dolores meets Jeanette, who teaches her what she knows about sex, kissing, and menstruation. In the summer, Tony installs a swimming pool, and he and Dolores spend a week together. He touches Delores inappropriately over her bathing suit. Tony then leaves after being fired for having an affair with a client and never comes back, causing Dolores to wonder if it was her fault.

Dolores’s mother becomes unresponsive, and Dolores goes to live with her grandmother in Rhode Island. Grandma sends Dolores to a Catholic school where she is bullied and harassed. Dolores’s mother is admitted to a psychiatric hospital and sends Dolores letters. She also sends her a painting of a flying leg with the wings of a parrot, which becomes an important treasure for Dolores.

When Bernice leaves the hospital, she gets a job and starts dating, and Dolores makes friends with a woman across the street named Roberta, who owns a tattoo parlor. When a couple named Jack and Rita move into the apartment upstairs, both Bernice and Dolores fall for Jack. Jack and Bernice begin an affair, and Jack soon takes an interest in Dolores, slowly grooming her. This culminates in Jack raping Dolores when she is 13. When Rita has a miscarriage soon after, Dolores feels like she is somehow responsible.

In Part 2, Bernice starts supplying Dolores with anything she asks for—including her own TV, junk food, and cigarettes—due to Bernice’s guilt for not being able to prevent Dolores’s sexual assault. Dolores starts high school and meets a new counselor, Mr. Pucci, who encourages Dolores to go to college. Dolores and her mother argue for years about the issue. Bernice applies for colleges anyway, and Dolores gets into one college, which requires a physical. She is told she is overweight, and combined with her smoking, that she won’t live long. Dolores gets a letter from her future roommate, Kippy, and develops a false persona through which she writes to Kippy. Around the same time, Bernice is hit by a truck and killed. At the funeral, Dolores sees her father but refuses to talk to him and spends the next weeks reflecting on what made her mother’s life so hard.

When Grandma goes away with her friends, she hires a man named Larry to put in new wallpaper. Dolores finds Larry approachable and kind, unlike Jack or her father, and has him drive her to Mr. Pucci’s house to talk to him about her mother and college. Mr. Pucci isn’t home, but his partner, Gary, invites Dolores inside. She admires their jukebox as she waits for Mr. Pucci, and when he arrives, he seems surprised to see her there. At home, Dolores invites Larry and his wife to stay the night. Larry’s wife Ruth shows up with their daughter Tia, and Dolores feels comfortable and relaxed around the family. At night, she awakes to the sound of Larry and Ruth having sex and wonders how Ruth could want something like that.

Dolores arrives at Merton College a week early but is let inside by a woman named Dottie. She spends the next week with Dottie setting up the dorms and cleaning. Dottie and Dolores bond over the fact that they are both overweight outcasts. When the dorms open and Kippy arrives, she is shocked to see Dolores, the opposite of the person from the letters. Kippy remains reluctant to show Dolores respect for the time they live together, and when Kippy fractures her collarbone, Dolores is stuck taking care of her.

Kippy receives letters from a boyfriend back home named Dante, while also sleeping with someone at the school. Dolores intercepts the letters, finding Dante sensitive, and even keeps the nude photographs that he sends Kippy. At the Halloween party, Kippy’s boyfriend accosts and molests Dolores while everyone cheers him on. Not knowing who to call, she phones Dottie, who invites Dolores over for supper. Dottie pressures Dolores to drink and have sex while telling Dolores she is a whale that nobody cares about. Dolores feels disgusted with herself, and when she leaves, she stops to poison Dottie’s fish.

Dolores takes a cab to Cape Cod to see the whales that have recently been beaching themselves. She cannot stand the sight of a dead whale that others are gawking at. She calls an old friend of her mother’s from her motel room, then returns when everyone has gone, stripping down and swimming next to the lifeless whale. She thinks about ending her life but forces herself out of the water. A man is waiting there to take her to a psychiatric hospital after her mother’s friend called for help.

Part 3 begins by detailing the seven years Dolores spends at the psychiatric hospital in Rhode Island, where she works with Dr. Shaw. Dr. Shaw ushers Dolores through a second childhood, starting from the womb, to heal her and provide her with a solid foundation. Dolores starts to see herself differently, loses weight, and comes to understand aspects of her past. Dolores moves to a group home and continues working with Dr. Shaw. At age 21, she finally admits her anger toward her mother’s affair with Jack and forgives her for everything.

Dolores gets a job at a photo lab and develops photos from across the country, which she finds inspiring; she also immerses herself in Etch-a-Sketch, becoming adept at portraits of people. She even draws a portrait of her future husband, which later turns out to be Thayer.

When Dolores develops a film that shows pictures of Dante as a high school teacher, she sets out to meet him and start a future by moving to Vermont and living in his building. She approaches him in the parking lot one day, and when he asks her out, she happily agrees. The two begin dating; Dolores is happy at first and feels like she has finally found a respectful, kind man. She takes a job at a grocery store and writes to her grandmother about Dante.

When Dante comes home angry and irritable after a conflict at work, he acts standoffish, and Dolores feels like he’s a stranger. Dolores soon realizes she is pregnant after lying to Dante about being on birth control, and when she tells him, Dante insists on an abortion, then uses her for sex and leaves for a week. He comes back begging for forgiveness but without having changed his mind about the pregnancy. Not wanting to lose Dante, Dolores gets the abortion. She starts to hate Dante afterward, but marries him regardless, hoping he will eventually change his mind. Dolores’s grandmother comes to the wedding and gifts Dolores $2,000.

In 1978, Dolores and Dante are still together, and Dolores is pining for a child. She saves up money, including her grandmother’s gift and money from work, to buy a house, but Dante dismisses the idea of commitment. When Dante spends almost all Dolores’s savings on a van, Dolores feels betrayed and angry but forgives Dante quickly. Dolores continues grieving her abortion and fakes happiness.

In the fall, Dante admits he was fired in June after being accused of being sexually involved with a student. Months pass, and he becomes more irritable and angry, hitting Dolores on one occasion. When Dolores finds Dante and his student on the couch half-naked together, she screams at him to leave. A week later, her grandmother dies, and Dolores calls Dante for help. He tries to plead forgiveness and uses Dolores for sex again, but in her loneliness, Dolores takes him back.

Dante spends her Grandma’s funeral in her bedroom writing poetry and masturbating, and Dolores runs into Mr. Pucci, whom she is delighted to see. On the way home, Dolores reveals everything about her past to Dante and accuses him of statutory rape. They divorce soon after, and Dolores remains in her grandmother’s house, becoming close to Roberta. Roberta has Parkinson’s and arthritis, and Dolores tries to help her as much as Roberta allows. After a fall, Roberta is hospitalized for two weeks while Dolores finds out that her father died. She feels little about his death, but gains weight, isolates herself again, and accidentally kills her fish. When Dante finds her in this state, he yells at her to fix her life. Dolores responds by taking Roberta on a road trip to Cape Cod to see whales, but they miss the migration.

In 1984, Dolores starts working at a bakery and attends college. Roberta moves in with her, and they get a delivery job together, which results in Dolores’s stopping at Mr. Pucci’s house one night. She finds him distraught and his partner gravely ill, and Mr. Pucci’s partner dies of AIDS soon after. Dolores then steps in as a companion to Mr. Pucci.

Dolores meets Thayer at the bakery. He asks Dolores out, and they find out about each other’s pasts and current lives. On the third date, Dolores asks Thayer to help her have a baby without being its father, and Thayer feels confused. Still, he wants to help Dolores, hoping it will lead to a relationship, and it eventually does—but not without some last advice from Mr. Pucci. When Mr. Pucci develops AIDS, Dolores goes to see him in the hospital, and the last time she visits, he tells her to marry Thayer and stop wasting the potential for happiness. Dolores goes through with it, and she and Thayer spend three years trying to have a child with no success.

Thayer takes Dolores up to Cape Cod to clear her mind, and they go whale watching together. There, Dolores sees a massive humpback whale breach through the water and feels as though she can finally accept her past and be grateful for what good she has been given.

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