Book Review, Fiction

Book Review: We Are Water by Wally Lamb

When I mentioned on Facebook today that I loved We Are Water, a few people who read the book expressed their disappointment with it. On Goodreads, similar reactions were shared; some people, like me, loved it, and others really hated it. I think the problem with this book is that if you are looking for a simple story, you’ll be disappointed.  I think Wally Lamb is making a commentary on evil with this new book, and it’s not an easy read, but if you can see my viewpoint, you might like the book as much as I do.

As usual, spoiler alert; I might reveal some plot points you wish I’d kept secret.

This is a book that starts off with an intriguing premise. Annie, married for 27 years to Orion, a Connecticut college psychologist, has abandoned her 27 year marriage, announced she is a lesbian, and left Orion to live with and marry her partner, Viveca.  Annie and Orion have three children, twins Ariadne and Andrew, and young Marissa.  The story alternates between their viewpoints as well as two sections narrated by peripheral characters, a newspaper reporter and the mother of a teenage girl, as well as Kent, Annie’s pedophile cousin.

We have a cast of characters vaguely unlikable in many different ways. This is why I think so many people react negatively to the book. None of the characters are completely fleshed out or believable, with the exception of Kent, who is so chillingly real you don’t feel the least bit sorry when he eventually gets his comeuppance.

Everyone seems to be dealing with abandonment issues of one type or another, acting out and generally misbehaving except Orion.  Of all the characters, I liked him and Viveca, Annie’s lover, the least. Viveca comes across as a phony chic New Yorker, all materialism and money hunger, and I hate that in people. Orion, on the other hand, gives goody-two-shoes a new meaning. Let me ask you, if your spouse left you for someone else, would you go to his or her’s remarriage?  It wouldn’t go over too well here.  How would it go over in your household? Yet Orion seems calm and even considers going to the wedding. It’s completely unbelievable to me. It’s like, “Oh sure, after 27 years of marriage, my wife wants to marry another woman…sure, okay, fine, now let me deal with the mess of my life.”  He really was a cardboard character, in my opinion.

As the plot deepens, I realized that Lamb’s statement in this book is not gay marriage. It’s not even about child abuse, which is the secondary theme in the book. It’s really about inter generational pain.

There’s a difficult to read scene when Kent, the pedophile, describes his childhood. I actually found his description of abandonment by his father more painful than how his babysitter molests him, thus indoctrinating him into pedophilia. Kent’s dad leaves his mom for another lady whose son is in his class at school. Can you imagine the pain, the rage, the betrayal on that front? Every day you have to go to class and see the kid your dad is now tucking in at night, playing baseball with. His dad is a louse on all fronts, and Kent’s mother is struggling as a single woman to make ends meet. She has to send him after school to the babysitter’s house, and that’s where he gets molested. And by molesting and beating him, by torturing him, he ends up torturing others….

So it is this one spark, this one selfish action – Kent’s father’s choice to abandon his wife – that creates spirals of evil in the O’Day family.  Kent turns into a monster. He abuses Annie and 7 other little girls. He is a miserable scumbag, but as a result of his actions, Annie turns into an abuser, hitting her son, breaking his arm and so on. She doesn’t sexually molest him, but her kids are all messed up; her eldest, pregnant through artificial insemination because she won’t wait for a husband even though she’s fairly young; Andrew, turned into a holy roller; and Marissa, whose one-time try at prostitution ends up almost getting her killed.  And that’s just for starters.

Annie herself harbors a terrible secret involving a dreadful flood that kills her mother and baby sister. I won’t say anything more, but keeping toxic secrets is another theme in the book worth thinking about.

That’s why I liked this book. Lamb is making such a statement here.  Evil, left to fester, begets more evil.  Through the generations it crawls. Even though Annie and Orion’s kids don’t know their mother’s past at all, they are all acting out part of the story. It really made me think about how that happens.

One choice, however, for the other – to tell secrets, to air them, to heal them – can reverse all the damage in a single generation.

There’s some graphic sex descriptions in this book, and if you are really anti-gay, don’t read it.  But if you are willing to open your mind to the potential, and to the ideas presented here, I think it is worth a read.

I give it 3.5 stars out of 5.  I borrowed my copy from the Prince Edward County public library.

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