This review should be read all the way to the end for a complete understanding of my intent.
I get nostalgic when I think about Wally Lamb. I remember the intense reading experiences that were She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, I think about what a nice man he is and I just want to like everything he writes – want to cozy up while he tells me a story and I sink unresisting into his narrative.
Except that didn’t happen this time. I began encountering problems from the very first chapters of We Are Water – mostly with Lamb’s writing style. The narration is stream of consciousness all the way through – as if a writing teacher told these characters: “Put your pen to paper and don’t stop writing until I say so.”
That sort of exercise is common, in fact – it’s used as a warm up, to free the brain as the hand tries to keep up. It’s okay, in this exercise, if your thoughts are rambling, if they’re nonsensical, or if cliches abound. You don’t have to be cogent, you don’t have to be poignant, you don’t have to worry about structure, or word choice or form. You just have to dig deep. You just have to get the words down. In this exercise, I mean.
In a novel, you do have to worry about those things – the stylistic choices that can make or break a book. Lamb doesn’t appear to, though – he just lets his characters go, leaves them free to explore their innermost thoughts, be their most brazen selves, sprawl themselves across the page and take up residence. They can ponder and muse for pages – in the most casual and unrefined of meanderings and it’s okay, because we readers have agreed to hear them out.
I’m bordering on irate, aren’t I? I guess because over and over again this thought flitted through my head: Wally Lamb was being lazy. He’d given his characters this overly casual tone, this talk therapy approach, where anything went and italicized flashbacks could appear at any moment – and he never once came out of it, to construct that writerly sentence, that beautiful scene, that reflective, authorial pondering. I knew instinctively that he could have done better than this. That he could’ve been more charitable than to imprison us indefinitely in his characters’ indefatigable mind frames.
Then there’s something else to consider: Perhaps Wally Lamb was not being lazy. Perhaps he was, in a very carefully constructed way, being intentional. Perhaps he created these characters, casual and conversational as they are, to appear human, imperfect, hunting for themselves rather than the perfect sentence. Perhaps the very act of creating them was writerly. Who knows? It could be tremendously difficult to narrate the unencumbered human brain, to script the voices of people who are utterly free of defenses. I don’t know what writing this novel was like for Wally Lamb. It may have been impressively artful. Who am I to judge the writing of an author some call “the master?”
I’ll tell you who I am (says my defensive self): I’m a reader. And as a reader, I didn’t agree with many of the choices Lamb made. Perhaps this nagging feeling grated on me overly much because I am a writer too and I can’t help but read like one. In either case, it interfered with that submersion that so often happens during the reading experience – I kept sticking my neck out and doubling back.
This book is being dubbed as “emotionally searing” by the publishers, and there are parts of it that are. How I wish that Wally Lamb had stripped his book of all its excess flesh so that only those emotionally searing moments stood out. How I wish he’d built the book from them, rather than juggling so many characters, emotions, secrets and perspectives. Perhaps this book was just overly ambitious. Maybe it simply suffered from too much freestyle thinking and not enough honing.
I encourage you to seek out other opinions of We Are Water, before deciding if it is for you. I know I’ve come off strong and you should achieve more of a balance. TLC is hosting virtual tours of Lamb’s book through November. Visit some of the blogs stops (for a summary at the very least, since I’ve totally neglected plot!) Read some more reviews. And then decide for yourselves and report back. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts.
Click here to read an interview Wally Lamb gave recently to a Goodreads staffer.
Thanks to an extra copy sent by the publisher, I have one hardcover of We Are Water to give away. To enter, just comment on this post. Be sure to include your e-mail address so I can contact you! I’ll choose the winner at random. Giveaway ends Sunday night, 10/20!
Many thanks to HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours my advance reader’s copy!