Friday, October 25, 2013

We Are Water by Wally Lamb -- A Modern Day Family's Saga

I was at a point where I wasn't going to say "Yes" to an advance reader copy (free from Harper in exchange for an honest review) for a bit since I wanted to clear off my "to read" pile a bit.  However, I felt like I just couldn't pass up a new offering from Wally Lamb (like everyone else says, I read him before everyone else did....).  We Are Water chronicles the life of the Oh family, although it actually opens with an art critic/historian telling a reporter about an African-American artist who'd gone largely unrecognized in his time.  He'll get revisited during the novel, linked to the Oh's because, prior to a suspicious death and years before their arrival, he lived in a small shack behind what became the Oh family home.

When we turn to the Oh's, we find Orion and Annie divorced and both at a crossroads.  Orion has left his long-time work as a college psychologist.  Annie is in the throes of planning an elaborate wedding to Viveca, a woman she met and fell in love with while still married to Orion when Annie's art (very modern, often very angry and quite explicit).  There are three grown children: twins Andrew (only son who bore the brunt of his mother's temper, now a conservative and a military nurse, engaged and not planning to attend the wedding at the novel's open because he and his fiancée disapprove) & Ariane (running a service organization in California, travelling home with some unexpected news) plus youngest daughter Marisa (a struggling actress in NYC, seems to enjoy being spoiled by the wealthy Viveca, coming off a recent trauma that she hasn't shared).  We also travel back to both Orion and Annie's childhoods, particularly the latter which involves secrets and a lot of pain.

A lot has happened and a lot happens.  Maybe too much (in particular, I thought the novel could do without the major event that impacts Orion in the latter part of the book).  There's a lot of interesting stuff here.  I enjoyed the way Annie's story unfolds (well, given some events, "enjoyed" is an odd word choice) and appreciated that Lamb doesn't throw all of her story out at once.  I also was interested in how that past played out in her role as mother.  Overall, I thought Orion & Annie's pasts were more interesting and felt more textured and real than their present day stories (I didn't care too much for how Annie's present went either....though I was more appeased by her ending than Orion's).  I'd have liked to see more of the kids, in particular to have gotten a better understanding of Ariane's choices. 

It is well-written and complex with a lot to think about.  The psychology is complex and Lamb does a skilled job of showing how our pasts unfold into our presents.  It isn't the type of novel that a writer can churn off in a few months (or a reader in a few hours) and I count that as a positive (there's a time and place for the new-bestseller-twice-a-year writers, but I tend to feel the best books take a lot more time and simply take more out of a writer...and they aren't subject to a main author lending his name to someone else's work with the main writer getting a minor credit).  However, in addition to feeling dissatisfied by the major present-day plot advancement in the latter part of the book, there may simply be "too much" taken on.  Lamb can manage the plots quite deftly, but the sheer number of plot points means some stories get more time/complexity than I'd like while others get too little.   Be prepared for a lot of socio-political commentary (very much liberal leaning...I'm a liberal but still felt it was a bit too slanted at times).  Also, readers should know there are some graphic parts including violence and different forms of abuse (in particular, a descriptive account of child sexual abuse and a look inside a pedophile's mind...I don't think the existence of abuse is much of a spoiler and ultimately think that the value of the warning outweighs any revelation). 

I think 4 stars is probably right for me, though I'm having trouble committing.  The style and writing talent, the complex character development, and the interesting voices are strengths, as is the simple fact that I looked forward to reading it for most of the 500+ pages.  The latter parts of the current-day plots disappointed, as did the inability to give more attention to certain stories given how many plotlines are included.

1 comment:

Lee said...

I really liked I Know This Much is True and She's Come Undone, but I didn't like his book about Columbine at all. I wonder if I'd like this one.