5 stars (out of 5)
For a voracious reader like me, it doesn't get much better: When I finished the first [short] chapter of this book, I was so totally blown away that a big "Wow! came out of my mouth, startling my husband Jack who was sitting next to me reading a book of his own. My next thoughts were that this is a perfect example of what great writing should be, followed by the question of why, since I used to be a huge Stephen King fan, I haven't read any of his books in several years.
The question, though, is fairly easy to answer. Many of King's early books were, in addition to terrific, relatively short. Cujo, for instance, is 324 pages; another favorite, Thinner, is 356. As a busy working mom with little free time to read, these were a great way to satisfy my craving for mystery and thrills in fairly short order.
But then, King started to go wild and crazy, churning out epics that required two free hands to pick up (drinking a cup of coffee or sipping wine while reading them was next to impossible). In addition, patience has never been one of my virtues; when I start a new book, I want to finish it now. As you might expect, then, it's pretty much a rule that if it's more than 350 pages, give or take another 50, I won't be reading it - even though I have far more free time now that I'm semi-retired.
That said, there are two authors (and only two) for whom I'm willing to break that rule: J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame (and more recently, The Casual Vacancy) and King, although it's been a long time since I tackled a tome by the latter. But then, I started seeing promotions for "Under the Dome," a 13-episode TV show on CBS based on King's book of the same name. I wanted to watch it for sure, but as with most books-turned-anything else, I wanted to do the reading first. Published in 2009, it wasn't hard to find - but then I saw the 1,088 pages and gasped. I can read four other books in the time it will take to finish this one, I reasoned - and besides, would I be able to get it done before June 24, the date the first episode airs?
Since you're reading this review, it's obvious that I made it with time to spare. And what a read it is!
If you've seen the TV trailers, you already know the basic premise: Suddenly, without any warning at all, a small town in Maine becomes enclosed in an invisible barrier - much like the clear glass cover on a turkey platter. The "thing" is ever-so-slightly permeable by air and water - sound doesn't seem to be a problem - and it's nearly impossible to determine how high (or how far underground) it reaches. That it can't be seen is demonstrated time and again by trucks, airplanes and animals that crash into it, blowing everyone in them to kingdom come. No one in or out of the town has a clue where the thing came from or when (or if) it will go away again.
The real story here, of course, is how the townsfolk react to the situation; many have lost loved ones - either by accident or because they're on the outside of the dome - and there's a threat to life itself with no possible way to connect to the rest of the world for supplies, water or oxygen. As one might expect, the community becomes split into two factions; one is led by a used-car dealer and dictatorial town politician who's used to getting what he wants (often in ways that aren't legal). The other, much smaller, faction is led by a former army officer who's found a place where he can forget about his time in Iraq and the editor/publisher of the town newspaper.
As the situation becomes known to the outside world, the army guy - Dale Barbara - is re-recruited by his old commander who's on the outside to take charge of the inside per instructions from none other than the U.S. President. This, understandably, rankles the politician ("Big Jim" Rennie Sr.), who's intent on establishing himself as the in-charge guy during the disaster and after, assuming there is an after. Quickly (well, in a book this long that's a relative term), things go from bad to worse and bodies start piling up literally all over the place - some from natural causes and others not.
If I have a criticism, it's hard to keep all the characters straight except for the "biggies" - not only because there are so many, but because they keep dropping like flies never to be read about again. Still, the interactions among those who remain held my interest all the way through, making me forget (well, almost!) about the overarching threat - the dome itself.
Kudos, Mr. King - I'm really looking forward to seeing the TV adaptation. I've read that the ending in the book has been completely changed, and a couple of the main characters seem to have dropped in age by quite a few years (pandering to the youth market, I suppose). Well, we'll see - this is why I always want to read the book first!
Under the Dome by Stephen King (Scribner, December 2009); 1,088 pp.