Lamb nav­i­gates fam­ily se­crets

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Lind­say McKnight

WITH the le­gal­iza­tion of same­sex mar­riage in much of North Amer­ica, best­selling Amer­i­can au­thor Wally Lamb’s lat­est novel is es­pe­cially top­i­cal. This is typ­i­cal of Lamb, whose first two nov­els — She’s Come Un­done (1992) and I Know This Much Is True (1998) — dealt with childhood obe­sity and men­tal ill­ness. The Hour I First Be­lieved (2008), his third book, ref­er­enced the hor­rors of war and the Columbine high school shoot­ing. We Are Wa­ter be­gins a few years af­ter An­nie Oh, a house­wife-turned artist, has left her hus­band of al­most 27 years — or “de­fected,” as he puts it — to move in with her fe­male lover, Viveca, a wealthy art col­lec­tor and dealer. Re­port­edly based on Nor­wich, Conn., where Lamb was born, Three Rivers is also the fic­tional set­ting for two of Lamb’s ear­lier nov­els. To­day, Lamb is a res­i­dent of Mans­field, Conn. An­nie’s mar­riage an­nounce­ment elic­its vary­ing re­ac­tions from the Oh’s adult chil­dren. Ari­ane, the old­est, em­pathizes with her fa­ther Orion, a psy­chol­o­gist at the univer­sity in Three Rivers, while her twin An­drew, an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian, is em­bar­rassed and re­volted by the very no­tion. Their young, hip sis­ter, Marissa — an ac­tress — is, like, to­tally cool with it. For his part, Orion seems to have moved past his ini­tial be­wil­der­ment, but ag­o­nizes over whether or not he will at­tend the cer­e­mony. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, he finds him­self at the cen­tre of a sex scan­dal at the univer­sity. Much as in the Joyce Carol Oates novel We Were the Mul­vaneys, We Are Wa­ter nav­i­gates the per­ilous ter­ri­tory of fam­ily se­crets. Kept hid­den, their se­crets threaten to con­sume the Ohs, as do the very things they turn to for refuge — be it art, re­li­gion, booze or re­la­tion­ships. The chap­ters are nar­rated by al­ter­nat­ing fam­ily mem­bers, and a few by more pe­riph­eral char­ac­ters, mostly for ex­po­si­tion pur­poses. An­nie and Orion’s chap­ters are es­pe­cially well-writ­ten, with clear, em­i­nently hu­man voices that rem­i­nisce on the ups and downs of their courtship and mar­riage. It’s dif­fi­cult to choose a side; as in real life, things are never black and white. An­nie dis­cov­ers her pas­sion for cre­at­ing art al­most by ac­ci­dent, some years into fam­ily life with Orion, and it quickly be­comes the chan­nel for her un­re­solved pain and anger, or as she ex­plains, a way to “(f)ight back against the mon­ster.” Lamb takes his time teas­ing out her story, re­veal­ing it in small doses over sev­eral chap­ters. At times, Lamb can be heavy-handed, es­pe­cially when it comes to his wa­ter theme; be­sides the events and places in­volv­ing bod­ies of wa­ter, al­lu­sions — some of them clumsy — sur­face ev­ery­where: the town of Three Rivers, Viveca’s sea-green wed­ding dress, even the name Oh sounds like the French word for wa­ter, eau. Lamb ham­mers his mes­sage home in a heart-to-heart be­tween Orion and An­drew. “‘All of life came from the ocean, right? Even us... We are like wa­ter, aren’t we? We can be fluid, flex­i­ble when we have to be. But strong and de­struc­tive, too.’” Though it’s a fairly long read, most of the novel is deeply com­pelling. If the mid­dle sec­tion cov­er­ing the lives of the Oh chil­dren tends to drag, Lamb’s prose cer­tainly flows like wa­ter, build­ing ef­fec­tively to an elec­tri­fy­ing cli­max. Lind­say McKnight works in the arts in

Winnipeg.

We Are Wa­ter

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