Hardcover, November 10, 2009; Kindle version, December 24, 2009
First, the confession. This was the first book I ever read by Stephen King. I decided to start with it for two reasons, neither profound. First, my company's in-house newsletter is called Under the Dome. Second, now that I have a Kindle, the sheer size of this thing is less intimidating.
The setting of this Under the Dome is a small town in Maine called Chester's Mill (or sometimes, just "the Mill"). The point-of-view characters are numerous and varied, and range from new-in-town former Army captain now short-order cook Dale Barbara (a.k.a. Barbie) to born-and-raised local Julia Shumway, the owner/editor of the local newspaper. At one point even Julia's Corgi is the POV character, so it's difficult to call any one person the protagonist, although Barbie probably comes closest.
The antagonist is clearer— Big Jim Rennie, the local used car dealer who runs a secret but thriving crystal meth factory behind the local fundamentalist church/radio station. Big Jim truly believes God is on his side and so long as he "gets kneebound" now and again, then things will go his way.
The action starts on a day when Barbie is trying to leave town after a run-in with Big Jim's son and his thuggish friends. Barbie doesn't quite make it out of the Mill; one second everything is normal and then cars, trucks, planes, birds, and pedestrians suddenly crash into an invisible, impenetrable, indestructible barrier at the city limits— all of the city limits. In every direction, Chester's Mill is inexplicably cut off from the outside world by the Dome, although really it should be called the Bubble because it also extends miles beneath the surface of the soil as well as in the air.
People are naturally freaked out. The first news chopper sent to film the Dome crashes into it. People fight panic. Visitors for the day are trapped, and residents who were out of town can't return. Meanwhile the Dome admits light and air and some moisture but not enough for it to rain and all particulates from pollution are trapped inside. The Army tries everything it can think of but can't break the barrier.
Big Jim doesn't want to break it; he's enjoying close to unlimited power by virtue of his unscrupulous nature, a certain amount of charisma, and a financial hold over a lot of citizens. The longer the crisis goes on, the stronger his hold on the Mill, and the more danger Barbie is in.
The best thing about this story is the vivid characterization. King is a master craftsman when it comes to creating people on the page and breathing life into them. I should mention that sometimes writers get too attached to their characters and can't bring themselves to kill them off. Not a problem. The setting, too, was very well realized, the small town where everyone knows who everyone else is, even if they don't know them well. After a while, it was a little like reading a Garrison Keillor story, but with a high body count.
The story was compelling; things started out bad and got steadily worse. The POV shifts were in no way a problem because King always knew in exactly whose head we were supposed to be, and he was always comfortable there. He also used a nice mix of everyday, supernatural, and science fictional elements, that I thought worked well together. But if asked to recommend this book, I can't really say I do.
Spoilers coming up! Stop reading if you don't want to know about the ending, and why it made me not like the book. .
All in all, in spite of the compelling nature of the story, I was really disappointed by this book. After creating a small town full of very imperfect but for the most part not terrible people, King goes for the big-disaster-movie finish. I could almost see the special effects credits for the movie version rolling across the page. A huge explosion starts a fire that kills most of the town outright, and leaves only a handful of survivors.
A lot of stories are a variation on "protagonist is in a box and has to get out." King made it impossible for humans to get out of the box by their own efforts, and then he kept making it worse and worse for them, until finally most of them die. When the few survivors do get out, it's really not a victory in any sense of the word.
Plus, it did seem to me the explanation for the Dome did not entirely fit what it was; my impression from the beginning was the Dome was shaped by the town's city limits (constantly called boot or sock shaped), and I don't see how its creators could have known or would have cared what the city limits were. The Dome should have been shaped like a sphere or a fish tank, without regard for legal boundaries.
Finally, UTD suffers, I thought, from a surfeit of message: humans are cruel to each other, and we are destroying our closed ecosystem. I could not tell which was the primary message; the plot jumps the shark, but I'm not sure if the shark is pollution/global warming or the need to rein in bullying before it grows into torture.
I am glad I don't have to award stars, because I don't think I could figure it out. The first two-thirds of the book was so good, it just made the last third look so really bad. How about this? Five stars out of five for each of the first two thirds, and two stars for the last third; that's twelve total, divided by three and that yields four overall.
✮✮✮✮ (Also note, the Kindle version had at least eight instances of words hyphenated when they should not be and one place where there had to be a word missing for the sentence to make sense.)
FTC Disclosure: I paid for this book.