In Wally Lamb's latest novel, “We Are Water,” outsider artist Annie Oh has left Orion Oh, her psychologist husband of 27 years, to marry a sophisticated, Manhattan-based art dealer named Viveca. On the way to the wedding — set in Lamb's familiar setting of Three Rivers, Conn. — Annie and her family members offer differing perspectives on the nuptials, shaped by personal experiences and tragic backstories. Over 550-some pages, the reader discovers a lineage of long-held secrets and sorrows.
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The novel's chapters are narrated in the first person by different characters, mainly Annie and Orion and their three adult children: soliloquies on resentment, desire, abandonment and art-making; descriptions of banal activities such as playing Sudoku and watching TV; even a phone call to Dr. Laura Schlessinger seeking familial advice. There are also deeply disturbing moments: recollections of abuse and trauma, including a few chapters from the point of view of a pedophile from whom much of the tragedy stems.
"We Are Water" is a slog. At times, reading it feels like walking around the shallow end of a swimming pool wearing tennis shoes: unnecessarily arduous and slowgoing. Readers should expect to encounter many passages like this one chronicling Annie's domestic rituals and interior monologue: "Coffee. I need coffee. Maybe a couple of cups of caffeine will motivate me to get to the studio today. … I take the beans out of the freezer (fair-trade, Guatemalan, thirteen dollars a pound at Zabar's). Grind them. Hit the 'brew' button. Everything's high end here. … Maybe … my life's become too ... comfortable. To stop thinking, I put on the TV, the morning news, and there's Diane Sawyer, looking as pretty as ever. She must be in her sixties by now. Has she had work done?" The inclusion of mundane details — the little moments that comprise an average day — isn't the problem. It's that these passages could benefit from a jolt of energy — or an editor's red pen.
Elsewhere, the intricate narrative thrashes about in the deep end, desperately groping around in far too many subjects: gay marriage, divorce, racism, alcoholism, artistic expression, domestic violence, parenting, class conflict, fundamentalist Christianity, murder and a devastating flood — to name a few. Lamb is no stranger to weighty topics. The Oprah Winfrey-endorsed author — his debut novel, "She's Come Undone" (1992), was a selection for Oprah's Book Club, as was his subsequent novel "I Know This Much Is True" (1998) — has tackled everything from mental illness to drug addiction, Columbine to Katrina. That his fifth novel is similarly ambitious is no surprise.
But too often the meandering story is subject to cliché attempts at cohesion. Water metaphors appear late in the story and are forced (Lamb said in a Barnes & Noble interview that he arrived at the title before the story, and it shows). Epiphanies are too tidy; consider: "So maybe that's what loves means. Having the capacity to forgive the one who wronged you, no matter how deep the hurt was." Most awkwardly, Lamb introduces comparisons between Annie's need to make art to regain a sense of control and the creative impulses of an African-American outsider artist who lived (and mysteriously died) on the Oh family property decades earlier. When Annie encounters his work, the artist, Josephus Jones, becomes both her muse and a spectral presence aware of her "secrets, [her] shame."
"What is it you really want?" she hears his ghost ask.
"I want … to make my art."
Meanwhile, as a reader, you start to give up on wanting to understand Annie, and it doesn't help that her art sounds pretty bad. When she makes "The Titan Brides of Gaia" in a sudden burst of rage by hurling red wine on Viveca's gowns, we're treated to this explanation: "I feel like Jackson Pollock must have felt, except I'm not dribbling paint; I'm staining beauty with blood." In a later chapter, Annie's daughter, an actress, mentions that the ruined bridal gown piece has sold to a celebrity: "How much did Gaga pay for that thing? And I can't even get acting work that pays scale?"
"We Are Water" is long, though nowhere near as long as Lamb's previous novels "I Know This Much Is True" or "The Hour I First Believed." It just feels that way. The shifting points of view work with varying degrees of success, and it's often difficult to care for any of these characters. Orion offers the most in terms of emotional accessibility and nuance, so it's fitting that he delivers the titular line: "We are like water, aren't we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too." The actual moments of self-discovery Lamb writes tend to be trite, but to his credit, he never oversimplifies the process. "We Are Water," a drawn-out family drama, is ultimately about our desire for meaning; the ways we stumble or flourish on our quest to find it are as much as about what our families withhold as what they provide.
Laura Pearson is a Chicago-based journalist specializing in arts and culture reporting.
"We Are Water"
By Wally Lamb, Harper, 561 pages, $29.99