Wally Lamb: Dark Subject Matter And Complex Characters

Hello, I finished book #19 of the year. It took me a full week, but I feel like Wally Lamb warrants a slow read. I finally finished We Are Water, his latest novel, and it was fantastic. Lamb has been one of my favorite authors for a long time, since I read I Know This Much Is True (which everyone should go buy/borrow/check out and read right this second, it’s life-changing.) And then of course, She’s Come Undone was also amazing (everyone read that one, too), and solidified his being one of the best authors in my eyes.

So anyway, We Are Water. It was quintessential Wally Lamb, with an overstated water analogy and theme that was so prevalent, it made its way into the name. Plus, there was a therapist element combined with a traumatic childhood story line. These are components that have been featured pretty heavily in the three novels I’ve read by Lamb. Somehow they don’t get old though. I think his characters and the stories themselves are always different enough that those key similarities don’t matter.

I actually read this novel differently than I would have, and I can’t tell how I feel about that yet. Back in the summer of 2014, the Cedar Rapids Public Library was awesome enough to host a summer author series call Out Loud! They brought in three different authors for the three summer months: Sarah Vowell in June, Wally Lamb in July, and Elizabeth Berg in August. I was (still am) unfamiliar with the other two authors, but I was so excited to see Wally Lamb.

I went to see Lamb at the Kirkwood hotel last July, less than a year after We Are Water first came out. I remember going with my parents, also big Wally Lamb fans, and then surprisingly my younger brother came along with four or five of his friends. Jack isn’t a big reader, so I was surprised, but internally attributed it to some cheesy praise of Lamb’s writing. He just brought people together, that’s how good he was. Or something.

Anyway, he was awesome, and it was amazing to hear him talk about writing and his experiences with it. He was soft-spoken and funny, I was looking for some of my favorite characters in him during the whole talk, but his main characters tend to be dark and tortured and at times, unlikable. These were traits I was not finding in Lamb. I got to talk to him briefly after the reading, too, and I’m still embarrassed about how awkward our interaction was while he signed my books. I asked him a question about his characters, trying to seem like some deep reader, but it was loud and he couldn’t hear me. My face was so red… Let’s just focus on the fact that I got to meet Wally Lamb, not the awkward interactions that defined my meeting Wally Lamb.

He read two different excerpts from We Are Water, and this was obviously before I’d read the book. The more powerful of the two passages that he read happened to give away a huge detail that isn’t revealed toward the tail end of the novel. It’s not necessarily a twist, because the incident is alluded to pretty heavily and indirectly prior to its reveal. Still though, an incident that would have made the main character, Annie, much more mysterious and complex was an incident that I knew before I even started it. I had heard Wally Lamb read it aloud with my own ears, and neither the passage nor the live reading was something I think I’ll ever forget.

So that was the one thing that made my reading of this novel a little out of the ordinary. But I don’t think I took less away from it while I read, knowing this detail. Like I said, this “twist” was alluded to throughout the book, and it would have been interesting to see if I would have guessed what happened (I have faith that I would have) but I’ll never know.

The novel itself was very good, and very hard to put down. Lamb is so good at creating entire casts of hugely flawed, irrational, and damaged characters who go on to damage other characters. In some books, the characters are very cut-and-dry, either easy to fall in love with or easy to despise. The way that Lamb writes his characters – especially in this novel when the reader gets passages from inside the heads of all the main characters -none of them are cut-and-dry, which was awesome. Reading a Lamb novel is reading a novel of conflict, created both in the book and in the readers head. I found sympathy for even Kent, the most detestable character in We Are Water.

I guess I’m not really talking at all about the plot of this book, but I’ll run through that really quick. The quick summary is that the reader enters this family after it has been broken, in the midst of their coping with Annie’s, the ex-wife/mother of the family, preparations to marry a woman. The story switches perspectives often, from Annie to her ex-husband, the therapist Dr. Orion, then to her three children, and the perspective of a few characters from the past who’s stories tie into the present of the novel in really effective and interesting ways.

Above all, it’s a story about family, marriage, violence, and the secrets that can lead to and ruin all of those things. It made me consider how much power we all have over one another in new ways, especially in our ability to so easily and quickly destroy someone’s entire life, and the ripple effect that can have on others, involved or not.

It was so compelling and so classic Wally Lamb. Which is a really good thing. ◊

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