Book review: Water, water, everywhere in Lamb's newest novel

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"We Are Water," the title of Wally Lamb's new novel, is a puzzle. Does this reference the terrible flood that took away Annie Oh's mother and infant sister? Is it a reference to the ocean at the Cape Cod beach where her ex-husband, Orion, seeks refuge after his sudden retirement and divorce? Is it the well where black stone mason and primitive artist Josephus Jones was found dead decades earlier?

This book is a story about questions and the people who always ask them as well as the people who arrogantly think they know all the answers. The story takes place over two decades and involves residents of a lovely New England property. In the 1950s, Josephus Jones, his brother Rufus and Rufus' wife live in a cottage behind the main house. Rufus and Josephus are stone masons for the home owner, a prominent builder.

By Wally Lamb
Harper ($29.95).

However, the Jones brothers are black, and Rufus' wife is a white Dutch woman whom he met while serving the U.S. in World War II. Rumors spread about the relationship of the three adults who live together in Three Rivers, Conn., a predominately white New England town. Josephus paints his visions and dreams compulsively on discarded table tops and broken-down cardboard boxes.

Ultimately, he is found dead headfirst and skull fractured in a shallow well outside the cottage. Only the local NAACP leader voices her opinion on the "accidental" death of a black man.

Decades later, Dr. Orion Oh and his wife, Annie, raise their family in the main home, and the cottage remains empty until their son, Andrew, and his friends use it as their hangout -- a place to grow a little pot and party in the view of the abstract and primitive nudes painted by Josephus that had been stashed away there. The Ohs are an unlikely couple. He is a psychologist and counselor to students on a local college campus.

Orion meets Annie while picking up his dry-cleaning. She is the counter clerk who was raised in the state foster system following her mother's drowning and her father's grief-fueled alcoholism. Dr. Oh obsesses about the Chinese-American father who denied him yet whose grandfather paid for his education. He dedicates himself to his job and is oblivious to serious signs of dysfunction in his own home.

Annie is as obsessed with making art from discarded items as Josephus was with his painting. She neglects all of her children and seriously abuses her son, who protects his mother by lying to his father. Annie's violent art and dismal parenting reveal a secret rage that she chooses to hide from her husband and family.

Having raised her children and having met commercial success, Annie divorces Orion. She moves to New York and falls in love with Viveca, the wealthy gallery owner who discovered her work. They plan a same-sex wedding in Three Rivers, while Orion accepts an invitation to vacation at Viveca's beach home in order to recover from a mistake in professional judgment that ultimately costs him his job.

By this time, the children have attempted to forge lives for themselves. Oldest daughter Ariane runs a soup kitchen in San Francisco and makes a life-changing choice. Her younger sister, Marissa, moves to New York City with visions of stardom that meet with personal violence. Andrew, a soldier, is engaged to a conservative Christian Texas debutante who grounds her prejudices in the Gospel. Andrew is battling his desire to attend his mother's wedding in light of his religious beliefs and the controlling nature of his judgmental fiancee.

The book assaults the reader with violence, anger and hate, yet the title evokes a sense of peace and tranquility. Race, religion, sexuality, poverty, wealth, education, values, trust and lies all clash like stormy waves against a rocky coast. How does one find peace? How does a family learn to function in the light of all of these differences? What does it mean to define ourselves as we are water?

The characters must face the onslaught of their past mistakes, their present attitudes and their desires for the future. Peace may come, but at what cost? And if there is a price, is it really peace?




Lorinda Hayes:

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