Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: We Are Water by Wally Lamb

I was not familiar with Wally Lamb’s writing before I read this novel. It came to me as one of the books long-listed for the Maine Readers Choice Awards, and it blew me away. The subject matter is not pretty, and is bound to make some readers uncomfortable. The characters are so well-portrayed however, that the reader is able to understand all the complex motivations that drive the players in the story.

Orion Oh is a psychologist on the staff of the local college. Married to Annie Oh, for over 25 years, they are the parents of twins Arianne and Andrew and another daughter Annie is an eclectic artist whose work often demonstrates an internal anger. She has gradually moved out of the family house in Connecticut to live in New York As the story unfolds, we gradually become aware of Annie's fractured childhood background which definitely impacts her adult actions. In the meantime, the now adult children are coping with their own coming of age difficulties while processing their mother’s choice of lifestyle and what they perceive as their father’s being abandoned by her.

The new bride, a high visibility art gallery owner, is quite assertive and is determined to have her wedding be one of the social events of the year. They are marrying in CT since same-sex marriage has, at the time of this story, not been approved in NY where the couple reside.

As the story progresses, each chapter presents a different character’s perspective, both about the upcoming marriage and also a retrospective glance back to the earlier years of the marriage and their own childhood. The past life experiences (especially regarding Annie's behavior) that influence the characters sneak up on the reader, and unexpectedly explode in a devastating scene of powerful emotions.

Without much of a spoiler, it seems that the children were traumatized throughout their growing-up years by actions of their mother who in turn has unresolved issues from her mother and younger sister's death in a flood; the children never thought to tell their father, and the father-busy with his professional life-was blind to what was happening in his own home to his own family. He is horrified when he realizes what may have happened and how that impacted his now grown children.As the family members gather back in the Connecticut home town to attend the wedding, emotions boil over, memories are triggered, and disaster seems inevitable.

I’m normally not a fan of epilogues, finding them often a tack–on that detracts from the reader’s assimilation and interpretation of the details. In this instance however, the epilogue could just as easily have been titled as another chapter giving the reader a glimpse into the future of the main characters. I found it fulfilling to be able to see how these lives played out, even though the scenarios were different from what I might have imagined or hoped for.
This is a powerful book that delves into very timely issues with compassion, and non-judgmental understanding. It does not sugar-coat unpleasantness, but neither does it make choices for the reader about the correctness of individual actions. It’s a well-researched, well-constructed story of life today, and one that will certainly be a popular choice for book discussion groups in the future.

Title: We Are Water
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Harper (2013), Hardcover, 576 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: Gay marriage, child abuse
Source: Review copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now? Long-listed for Maine Reader's Choice Award


  1. I read this a while back and enjoyed it. Not his best but very good I thought.

  2. Difficult subjects but the story sounds intriguing.


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