Thursday, January 16, 2014

We Are Water, by Wally Lamb

The members of the Oh family--recently divorced parents Orion and Annie and adult children Andrew, Ariane, and Marissa--have secrets. Some of the secrets are shared--everyone but Orion knows that Annie flew into violent rages and abused Andrew when the children were young, and Ariane is open up relatively easily about being pregnant through artificial insemination. But others are not. Marissa was beaten up by an actor while prostituting herself in hopes of making profitable connections for her acting career. Orion, a student services psychologist at a university, was accused of sexual harassment after an awkward sexual encounter with an aggressive graduate student seeking a reference. Annie's secrets are the ones that have shaped their family--as a young girl, she was molested by a cousin; her teen and adult years were difficult and included a late-term miscarriage and a lesbian fling. So much is covered up that Orion has no insight into the angry feminist art that Annie creates from the cast-off materials she picks up on scavenging trips around first their Connecticut community and then New York City.

A successful artist, Annie is now set to marry her lover, Viveca. Viveca is a successful gallery owner who has helped build Annie's career.  The impending nuptials are creating stress for everyone in the family, especially Orion, who still loves Annie, and Andrew, an army lieutenant and conservative Christian. At first Andrew plans to skip the wedding, but eventually decides to support his mother despite his misgivings about same-sex marriage.

In the run-up to the wedding, the family's secrets start emerging, with events coming to a head on the day of the wedding. While many secrets are revealed, a new secret starts to eat away at two family members. In the very long denouement following the events of the wedding, these two must decide whether it is better to keep the secret or to handle the consequences that will come from revealing it. The ending is ambiguous, though Lamb seems to be wrapping up the family story as positively as is possible given all that has happened. (I know this sounds very vague, but I don't want to reveal too much.)

The story is told by multiple narrators; each family member--including the child-molesting cousin, one of the creepiest characters I've encountered lately--has their turn to provide perspective, as do two minor characters who introduce Josephus Jones, who floats around the edges of the story--J Jones, an African American outsider artist who lived in an out-building on the Oh family property before they bought it. Jones's death on the property haunts Annie, who is simultaneously inspired by the one piece of his work she has seen.

Since quibbles: Viveca suffers from not being given a narrative voice; she comes across as a selfish member of the privileged classes, not at all sympathetic--and most of the negative information about Viveca comes through her partner, Annie. It's hard to imagine why anyone would want to marry Viveca. I'm not convinced that the Jones character is necessary to the novel, which is quite lengthy. Furthermore, the first section of the book, which introduces the Jones character, sets up a mistaken perception concerning whose book it is. In my view, Orion's story is the heart of the book (interestingly, Lamb says he began writing with Orion and, in the audio version of the book, Lamb reads Orion's sections). The Jones section postpones the reader's introduction to both Orion and Annie, unnecessarily so in my view.

On the positive side, Orion and Annie are both well-drawn characters whose conflicts have disturbing consequences for their children. The character of Kent, the child-molester, is so realistic that it's hard to imagine how the author could write his story in the first person (Lamb did reveal that he had to take a shower at the end of every day when he was writing Kent). I thought the multiple narrators worked well, though focusing only on the family might have made for a tighter plot. Despite the "looseness," the plot did bring out the corrosive effects of secrets on a family, a theme with relevance to virtually every person/family.

Favorite passage:
Sometimes I wish I could believe in some bigger scheme of things, the way people of faith do. . . . Can't do it though. But even if I can't pray, can't express my gratitude to some higher power up there in the sky, it doesn't mean I'm not grateful because I am.

“We are like water, aren’t we? We can be fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.” And something else, I think to myself. Like water, we mostly follow the path of least resistance. 

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