Do you remember 2009?
Barack Obama was just elected, those on the left were ecstatic, the right was growing in anger, everyone was concerned about the financial crisis, avatars and transformers were in the movie theaters, and everyone was listening to Beyonce.
Author Wally Lamb hasn’t forgotten that lost year and tries to capture the essence and feeling of the country during 2009 in his new book, “We Are Water.”
The book revolves around the Oh family, a multi-cultural clan each with issues that only people in our current times would or could experience. Orion Oh is a liberal former college guidance counselor who lost his job due to an indiscretion with one of the students; his ex-wife Annie Oh is a popular artist who is about to marry her lesbian lover. They have three children. Their son Andrew is a born-again Christian and military nurse stationed in Texas who has cheated on his virgin girlfriend with a stripper. Their overweight daughter Ariane Oh has decided to get pregnant through artificial insemination, and their youngest daughter Marissa is the dreamer who wants to be an actress or simply discovered. Do you see what Wally Lamb has done with the Oh family? He has done more than craft complex characters, he has lifted up a mirror to show us our country symbolically through this family. Yes, for good and for bad, in Wally Lamb’s eyes, the Oh family is America. And each character has their own chapters, expressing their own unique insights and feelings on the plot and others.
If the Ohs were the only focus, this book might have been a very good read, perfect for a book club with a lot of fun debate possibilities. But that’s before Lamb decides to add a new character named Kent Kelly about midway through the book.
He is the one big red-flag about this novel, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention him. I’d be just as guilty as the book description that is mum about him, for I had no idea, nor could I have. Shame on the publisher for not giving the readers a heads up. See, this point-of-view character is an unapologetic pedophile who walks you through his life and experiences. These chapters are very hard to read and disturbing. As he describes it, he is the hunter, and children are the helpless prey.
It takes a lot to bother me as a reader. “A Clockwork Orange,” “Jude the Obscure,” I’ve walked through some of the most demented and disturbing plot points in literature, but Kent was one line too far. And whenever Kent’s name appeared on the top of a chapter I would get a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. Once I even put the book down and walked away for a few days. And if it wasn’t for the fact I had to finish this review, I might not have picked it back up. For me as a reader, that says a lot.
So now that I have finished this new book what is my take? Warts and all?
Even without Kent, the dialogue can be quite wooden, and sometimes a reader can almost forget who is telling a chapter at any even given time since so many sound alike. Lamb and his editor could have worked a little harder on making them more distinctive from each other. Yes, Wally Lamb is a good writer, with a few classics under his belt. “She’s Come Undone” and “I Know This Much Is True” will truly test the dust of literary time; but “We Are Water” will not. Let me put it this way, when even your characters are astonished by a plot twist and call it an odd coincidence, you know your plot needs a little work.
“We Are Water” is messy, with highs and lows, and wasted potential. Hmmm … Kind of like the year 2009.