Wally Lamb’s We Are Water

We Are Water book cover

“Viveca’s wedding dress has a name: Gaia. Layers of sea green silk chiffon, cap sleeves, an empire waist, an asymmetrical A-line skirt with the suggestion of a train….Gaia: I Googled it yesterday….chaos, incest, monsters, warring siblings: it’s a strange name for a wedding dress.”    – Outsider artist Annie Oh, in We Are Water

Annie Oh throws a mug of red wine on the designer wedding dress of her future wife because she’s momentarily feeling ambivalent about the marriage. She likes the effect of the wine on the chiffon and proceeds to pour wine on the three expensive dresses Viveca has chosen for Annie to consider wearing on their wedding day. Thus she turns the dresses into pricey art that will fetch five figures, if not more.

I had a hard time engaging with Wally Lamb’s latest novel, at first, but I kept on because, having read I Know This Much Is True (the best book about schizophrenia and being a family member of someone with schizophrenia I’ve ever read) and She’s Come Undone, I’m loyal to Lamb and interested in his body of work. At first, the characters in We Are Water seemed pretentious; I’m used to the blue collar world he often writes about. But the writing is fabulous, as usual, and it wasn’t long before I was invested in the Job-like trials, tribulations, and family secrets of the Oh’s – Annie’s husband, Orion, and their adult children Ariane, Marissa, and Andrew.

After 27 years of marriage, Annie has left her husband and is about to marry Viveca, the art dealer who has made her famous. The wedding sets off a chain of events that harks back to 1963, when Annie, as a five-year-old, lost her mother and little sister in a flood that swept through her town. Lamb builds the story on a flood that actually occurred in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut when he was a boy.

Annie has never told anyone what, exactly, happened in the flood and its aftermath. These secrets have an impact on the kind of wife and mother she is, they fuel her art, and they result in a tragic turn in the lives of one of her children. Lamb always has compassion for his characters, but he is also unflinching about placing them in terrible circumstances. One of the things he does so well here is show how the devastating effects of child abuse and neglect can pass from generation to generation.

Wally LambLamb is a generous, down-to-earth true believer in the healing power of art. For many years, he as led a writer’s group for women at the York Correctional Institution. (See Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution.)  While he was working on We Are Water, the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown occurred; in a postscript to the novel he invites readers to contribute to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the National Alliance for Mental Illness. 

 “For the first nine months of our lives, we float underwater. Then we hit the cold air, the glaring light of day, and start crying salty tears. Begin the lifelong challenge of trying to figure out why we’re here, what it all means.”  – Orion Oh, We Are Water

Body and mind

What are the pros and cons of getting genetic testing if your parent has Huntington’s Disease? What about dating and relationships?

A resident in the pediatric intensive care unit wants patient education information about shaken baby syndrome and traumatic brain injury.

A mother whose child has just been diagnosed with epilepsy wants to know if a special diet will help.

At teaching rounds, medical students on their first patient rotations are led through the process of making a diagnosis. “He has weakness in his arm and leg,” says the neurologist. “If his symptoms are on the right side, where is the lesion in the brain?”

These are some of the situations I’ve seen as a medical librarian. Sometimes we forget how precious and fragile are our bodies and minds. We can walk, run, speak, love, laugh, cry, sing, read, write, think, create, make plans, give comfort, enjoy a meal with family and friends. Until one day something changes.

I know from personal experience a mind can become irrevocably altered and an identity can vanish seemingly overnight. Which is probably why I am so fascinated by medicine, especially medicine having to do with the brain and behavior.

Here are some of my favorite books (fiction and nonfiction) about illness, recovery, medicine, the search for cures and miracles, and the people caught up in it all: medical professionals, researchers, patients and families. If you follow my blog, a few of the books will be familiar.

FICTION

I Know This Much Is True book cover

I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb

“On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable.”

This is the best evocation of schizophrenia I’ve ever read. Wally Lamb is my hero.

By the way, Wally’s newest novel, We Are Water, was just published this month. It is on my nightstand in my little stack of books to read.

Saturday book cover

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

A neurosurgeon. Huntington’s Disease. A home invasion. A poem.

(The poem nestled deep within the plot sparks a crucial turning point. It also happens to be one of my lifelong favorites.)

State of Wonder book cover

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

“She was not terrified that the patient would die or she would lose the baby, she was terrified that she was doing something wrong in the eyes of Dr. Swenson.”

“I write with unfortunate news of Dr. Eckman, who died of a fever two nights ago. Given our location, this rain, the petty bureaucracies of government (both this one and  your own), and the time sensitive nature of our project, we chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian tradition….Despite any setbacks, we persevere.”

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves book cover

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler

“…I’d made a careful decision to never ever tell anyone about my sister, Fern. Back in those college days I never spoke of her and seldom thought of her…..Though I was only five when she disappeared from my life, I do remember her. I remember her sharply – her smell and touch, scattered images of her face, her ears, her chin, her eyes. Her arms, her feet, her fingers.”

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MEMOIR

God's Hotel book cover

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, by Victoria Sweet

Inspired by Hildegard of Bingen (12th century German mystic and medical practitioner), as well as her own instinct for compassionate, attentive care, Dr. Sweet practices “slow medicine” at the last almshouse in the U.S. as it transitions to the modern age. We should all have a physician like Dr. Sweet.

My Beautiful Genome book cover

My Beautiful Genome, by Lone Frank

“…we are each of us temporary depositories of information that has an almost eternal life, and which is passed on and on and on…”

“I am what I do with the beautiful information that has flowed through millions of years through billions of organisms and has, now, finally been entrusted to me.”

Five favorite books and blogs

Many thanks to Claire McAlpine, who tagged me in a Five Favorite Books challenge, which I’m to pass on to five other bloggers. Here goes, but before you read on, be sure to visit Claire’s delightful blog, Word by Word. Claire, who lives and works in the south of France, is a prolific, passionate reader who never fails to inspire me when I’m wondering which book to read next.

Of course, it’s impossible for me to name my five favorite books of all time, so here are five books I love that happened to come to mind as I sat down to write this:

I Know This Much Is True book coverI Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb.  I’ve read all of Lamb’s novels, but my favorite is I Know This Much Is True, about twin brothers, one with schizophrenia. Dominick Birdsey is an unforgettable character, and so is his brother, Thomas, who battles the demons of serious mental illness. My mother had schizophrenia, so for me this book is especially meaningful. Lamb’s portrayal of the illness is spot on. I Know This Much Is True blends comedy and tragedy as Dominick soldiers on in the difficult odyssey that is his life, the kind of real-life struggles we can all identify with. You just won’t want to stop rooting for Dominick, and I, for one, couldn’t stop reading until I found out whether he would end up with the love of his life.  I was taken with the darkly comic opening involving a librarian who has an especially trying day. (I read this before I knew I was going to become a librarian.) Check out Wally Lamb on Facebook. He’s a generous, down-to-earth author who loves talking with his readers.

In October, 2013, Lamb will publish his newest novel, We Are Water. In this video, Wally Lamb tells how We Are Water came about. Listening to his story will make you want to get the book, which I’ll be writing about in a future post.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. I’m a romantic, partial to female gothics, and there is the undercurrent of madness, which “transfixes” me (as Mr. Rochester would say). I read this in high school and have been fascinated and mystified by it ever since. Has anyone seen the most recent movie incarnation? I thought Mia Wasikowska and Amelia Clarkson (young Jane) were fabulous. And Judi Dench, of course.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro. When I was looking for a hyperlink to When We Were Orphans, I was surprised Wikipedia authors say it is regarded by some as Ishiguro’s weakest book. I don’t see that at all. For me, it eloquently captures childhood loss and its lifelong consequences, and there’s also the fascination of Ishiguro’s typically unreliable, self-deluded narrator. Except in this case I think the narrator comes to a sad, more realistic understanding of himself and the world. I’ll say no more since I’d like to write further about this book in the future.

Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. I loved visiting this small Colorado town and meeting the simple, kind, and decent people there. It does my heart good to know there are writers like Haruf creating fictional worlds like this one. I was swept away by Plainsong and the sequel, Eventide. Haruf makes writing look easy, but this sort of simplicity isn’t easy at all. I’ve not had the pleasure of reading his newest book, Benediction. Can’t wait. I’ll be sure to write about it here.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. I read this in high school, too, and haven’t read it since then, so I want to revisit it sometime soon. Another deprived childhood story.  (Do you see a trend here?) After I read David Copperfield I felt I’d lived an entire life. This is a great book to read when you are young and just starting out, and then at least once again when you’re looking back. I believe there was a PBS version that aired in the dark ages when I was reading the novel. It, too, was wonderful.

FIVE BLOGS I LIKE:

A Leaf in Springtime  Sheer exuberance in writing and photography, by Sharon, who is Chinese (born in Malaysia) and now living in Finland.

The Hiker Mama  I love the Pacific Northwest, and I wish this blog had been around when we were hiking with our sons. Jennifer and I had the pleasure of taking a class together taught by Christina Katz.

Fine Little Day  Because I’m half Swedish and I love fabrics and country houses and all sorts of beautiful domestic things.

66 Square Feet  A tiny terrace garden, seasonal living, cooking in New York City, and travels to South Africa, by Marie Viljoen. Just beautiful, reminds me of my big city days.

Flowery Prose  Plants, veggies, flowers, gardens, the outdoors, and lots of fascinating information about all of these.

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