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In the prologue of We Are Water (HarperCollins), Wally Lamb’s heavily plotted new novel, a museum curator describes the work of a fictional painter, Josephus Jones, who he believes is on par with “Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin, and the breakthrough artists of the Harlem Renaissance.” The curator notes that while Jones lacked technical expertise–he knew nothing about chiaroscuro, proportion and perspective–his talent for color and intuitive sense of narrative more than compensated for his lack of formal training. I thought of this description a great deal while reading Lamb’s book. While the novel could hardly be described as lacking technique, what stands out is Lamb’s narrative, or more precisely, his multiple narratives that include a flood, a murder, the massacre at Fort Hood, addiction, sexual abuse, and a number of other topics.
In fact, so much is going on in We Are Water that it’s difficult to summarize the book in a few short paragraphs, but I’ll try. At the center of the story is the upcoming wedding of Anna Oh, an unlikely star of the art world, to Viveca, a New York art dealer. While daughters Merissa and Ariane accept Anna’s wife-to-be, Andrew, Anna’s son, can’t reconcile the relationship with his newfound evangelical Christianity. He and his fiancé even call Doctor Laura for advice about whether or not to attend the wedding. Meanwhile Orion, Anna’s ex-husband, tries to make a new life for himself after the collapse of both his marriage and his career. (He was forced into retirement as a college psychiatrist after a sexual harassment accusation.)
We spend much of the novel in flashbacks before the wedding: some characters have backstories the length of novellas. It’s an indication of Lamb’s storytelling gifts that in general these flashbacks don’t bog the narrative down, especially given that his writing is filled with details, perhaps even minutiae. People don’t just drink; they grab their soda, take a sip, and swallow. I longed for more emotional detail in the novel. Sometimes character’s feelings are overly broad, lacking in the kind of precision that provides sharp psychological insight. When Orion throws his wedding ring into the ocean, he thinks, “Am I crying? Am I laughing? Both?” And when in a flashback Anna describes how she feels after the birth of her twins, she observes vaguely, “I hadn’t understood how profound love could be.”
We Are Water is told in multiple first person viewpoints. At the beginning of the novel Lamb alternates between Anna and Orion’s voices, but as the novel progresses we hear stories from other characters, including Andrew, Merissa and Ariane. This technique works, and may explain why although we don’t often get to the specific core of a character’s emotional life, we feel close to them anyway: they are speaking to us directly.
All of which is to say that despite my reservations, I found We Are Water hard to put down. Lamb often leaves his characters on a limb right before changing perspectives, and so we want to read further because of the most basic–and essential–reasons: we need to know what happens next. Lamb is no great stylist, but he does tell a good story, which, in the end, is enough to recommend the book. Lamb sheds little new light on the many issues that confront his cast of characters, despite the novel’s length (over 550 pages). But his understanding of narrative mostly compensates for what feels like an aerial view of the complexities of modern life. As a page-turner, We Are Water is this winter’s summer read.
We Are Water
By Wally Lamb
Hardcover, 9780061941023, 564 pp.