When I first started Wally Lamb’s We Are Water, I had flashbacks to Hustvedt’s The Blazing World. And I really couldn’t go back there (it was my only DNF for 2014). Flashbacks because the subject of both books is artists with baggage. I guess all artists need baggage, don’t they? Anyway, that’s where the similarities end. Where Hustvedt pontificates, Lamb simply tells a story.
But Lamb’s story is a violent and distressing one. I’m at a loss as to why there’s no mention of the themes of child neglect, child physical and sexual abuse, and paedophilia in the blurb or in any of the mainstream reviews (because trigger warning). It’s central to the story and in some parts graphic. And if that’s not enough, there’s also racism (with references to the Ku Klux Klan), a couple of murders, natural disasters, art theft, alcohol abuse and hardcore preachy-Christian crap. All of these things happen with a lesbian wedding used as the story reference-point – I think the lesbian wedding is small potatoes given the ground that this novel covers.
Before Franzen, Lamb probably had quite the market share on Oprah-endorsed sprawling family sagas. But where Franzen’s stories occasionally had me rereading particularly fine sentences (I stress occasionally because I’m not a die-hard Franzen fan), Lamb’s writing is plain and straightforward (and not so memorable).
I don’t want to read about crimes against children (Lamb uses the plot to show that those who abuse children were also once children themselves, and usually grew up in very difficult circumstances, highlighting the vicious cycle of abuse). I had to skim through the chapters told from the paedophile’s perspective. As mentioned, there were lots of other things going on in the story. And yet, I didn’t particularly care what happened. And to not care for over 500 pages… Well it wasn’t the greatest end to the 2014 reading year.
2/5 If you want to read some Lamb, start with I Know This Much is True – I can’t remember the detail but I do recall lending it to others, which is always a good sign.