Wally Lamb has written an ambitious book about abuse and how, over time and generations, the range of effects widens like the circles from a pebble in the pond. We Are Water is a novel with many characters and many themes in a rotating narrative, told from the points of view of the main players in the book.
Simply put, the story is about fifty-something Annie Oh, an angry artist who has left her husband, Orion, to marry Viveca, another woman. But this story is anything but simple. As Orion and their three grown children react and adjust to this development, a dense array of secrets and family dysfunction emerges and the story becomes a massive and painful tale in which each character struggles to find happiness. There is also a bit of a thriller and suspense element and that keeps the story moving.
In addition to abuse, it’s a story with a multitude of themes: art and expression, family, gay marriage, prejudice and acceptance, religion, relationships, desertion, anger, family heritage, alcoholism, a little political commentary, and, of course water. The water theme begins with the devastating events surrounding the actual Norwich, Connecticut flood of 1963, in which the dam at Norwich’s largest park collapsed and flooded four square miles, killing six people.
But as the plot develops, We Are Water’s main focus becomes verbal, physical and sexual abuse and their far-reaching effects. Lamb’s characters attempt to explain and justify what they do in the wake of this abuse. Annie uses art as a release and her creations result in violent displays of things and people. Her art has been recently discovered and is highly valued, but most likely misunderstood. She becomes a cyclone during her creative efforts, but her family has suffered, especially her son, Andrew, who has borne the brunt of her suppressed anger.
I like stories about families and conflict. Because of that, I like many things about this book, but not everything. Some of Lamb’s characters are very difficult to like and that makes their narrations less appealing. For example, Annie’s adult character is difficult to know. She’s self-centered and it’s hard to know why she’s about to marry Viveca. Yet young Annie is sweet and charming and you want to protect her. Similarly, but with a much more uncomfortable reader experience, Kent Kelly’s story begins innocently. He’s a victim first and then he’s a hero in the flood. By showing Kent as a boy, Lamb tries to explain, but not justify, Kent’s teenage and adult behavior. Personally, I’m not interested in getting into Kent’s head. It’s not a matter of how he came to be a monster. It’s a matter of the damage he creates. I think this section is overdeveloped and over-explained. It’s more than rough to read and it’s too sympathetic of the character. That said, maybe Lamb is accurate in describing someone like Kent, a sick charmer who ultimately pays the price.
I like Orion’s character the best. He’s certainly the most likeable. It’s easy to sympathize with him because he’s misunderstood and he tries to do the right thing. He’s also the most realistic character. Not always, however, because sometimes I think his conversations with the adult Marissa, Andrew and Ariane are overly open and unrealistic. Just sayin’.
Here are some other things I like about We Are Water:
- Lamb’s storytelling style. His characters take turns giving part of the story, introducing facts and events, then another character cycles back to include more details.
- The section about the flood is the strongest part of the book.
- I like stories about old houses and the things that are hidden inside.
- Characters who try to make sense of the bad things in the world. Ruth Fletcher, a flawed character, but one with surprising depth, says,
I’m down on my knees now, asking God why, if He’s merciful, He had to put so much meanness in the world He made. Weasels pounce, snakes bite, dams break, men kill other men. And why would a merciful God let a little child’s mother die?
Despite the dark subject, Lamb tries to end on a hopeful note. The ending reminds me of movies with tragic events, in which the survivors, beaten down, but not quite finished, look towards a hopeful future. Orion has adjusted to his future, but Andrew faces a difficult decision. As Andrew’s tattoo suggests, “Love wins,” and Orion answers, “No matter which way our lives turn out. Right?”
This is my fourth Wally Lamb book. All in all, a mixed bag, with some good spots. Have you read We Are Water? What did you think? I have always enjoyed Lamb’s books, but this one leaves me puzzled.
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