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