Monthly Archives: May 2014

Book Review: We Are Water, By Wally Lamb

I’m big fan of Wally Lamb’s work, but “We Are Water” was a tough read for me. The subject matter was dark as it dealt with childhood sexual abuse, racial prejudice and violence, mental health issues, and the thin line between creativity and madness. The alternating point of view (POV) chapters and leaps across decades in the narrative were jarring. The cast of characters was large and somewhat unwieldy. POV characters included Annie and Orion Oh and their three children, Andrew and Ariane (twins) and Marissa, and a host of others whose lives intersected with the Ohs.

Annie Oh is an experimental artist whose violent and bizarre art provides an outlet for her seething rage. Her anger stems from a dark secret. She was the victim of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her cousin, Kent Kelley, who also saved her life during a devastating 1963 flood in Three Rivers, CT, based on Norwich, where Lamb grew up. The story begins after Annie divorces Orion, a psychologist and university mental health counselor, to marry her art dealer, Viveca. The gay marriage doesn’t sit well with Andrew, an Army nurse and born again Christian.

At a recent presentation I attended, Lamb said he writes about imperfect people seeking to improve their lives. The characters in “We Are Water” are certainly imperfect, but many of them almost feel like caricatures. Andrew is an angry young man. Ariane is the do-gooder who is self-conscious about her looks. Marissa is the struggling actress living in New York who drinks too much.

Other than the likeable Orion and the scary Kent, these characters didn’t seem real to me.

I admire Lamb for tackling the big subjects of the day, as he did in The Hour I First Believed, but this time it feels like he is over reaching. There is too much going on here and the story lacks focus and cohesion.

In spite of its flaws Lamb offers a redeeming message about the healing power of love. It is best expressed by Orion, who observes near the end of the book, “So maybe that’s what love means. Having the capacity to forgive the one who wronged you, no matter how deep the hurt was.”

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Good Girl Gone Bad or Shades of Gray?

How good is your hero? How bad is your villain? Discussing character development recently with a group of writer friends, I expressed my dislike for protagonists who are too good and antagonists who are too evil. Main characters must have flaws; otherwise they could never surmount the serious challenges that pay off in transformative change.

Most writers get this, but there is a different kind of protagonist, embodied in film by Michael Corleone and, more recently, by Walter White. These are characters that start out virtuous and sympathetic but, as Walter’s series title sums it up, break bad. Michael Corleone was the good son in The Godfather. He was the one who enlisted and fought in the war. He was the one who Don Corleone wanted to keep out of the family business. Circumstances forced Michael to make a choice. He rationalized his killings by reasoning he was going to get the Corleone family out of organized crime. At one point, after deciding to go into the casino business in Las Vegas, he states that in ten years the Corleone family will be completely legitimate. It surprised nobody when that didn’t happen.

Similarly Walter White embarks on a life in the drug trade with the best intentions. Given a terminal cancer diagnosis, the high school chemistry teacher and soon to be dad starts cooking meth to leave a nest egg to his family. Walter fools himself into believing he can get out any time he wants. Not only can he not exit the drug culture, he makes a series of decisions that plunge him deeper into the world of corruption. When he commits murder for the first time, he rationalizes it by convincing himself the man he killed was going to murder his family. And that might have been the case, but soon he is killing for less clear reasons. He evolves from a character who is protecting his family from danger to a person who boasts, “I am the danger.”

A good example from literature is Scarlett O’Hara. At first blush, she comes off as a domineering, self centered harlot, but as the Civil War rages on and her family and community are in danger, she almost singlehandedly protects her loved ones from mortal danger, including her nemesis, Melanie Wilkes. In the end, I had mixed feelings about Scarlett. Was she a hero? She was a tragic figure, too blinded by her love for someone she couldn’t have that she failed to see how much Rhett Butler really loved her.

I like my heroes to have flaws, that is, to be human. And I like my villains to have redeeming qualities. In fact have you noticed a trend in films and television series of drawing heroes who are loaded with flaws and demons? Ultimately complexity in characterization is a good thing.

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Structural Challenge: The Out-of-Sequence Story

Story structure is on my mind as I revise my work-in-progress. My challenge is that I have discovered after reviewing my first draft that my story must be told out of chronological order. I discovered this after coming to the realization that the person who was originally my main character was the wrong character to carry the story. I didn’t realize this until I was well into my first draft.

Here is the background. The story, tentatively titled, Say a Prayer for Maura, centers on an Irish Catholic family in the Boston area. Frank O’Malley, the patriarch, is dying of cancer and his only wish is to reunite with his estranged daughter, Maura. I envisioned this as Frank’s story, but as my first draft progressed it became clear to me that this was Maura’s story. The character Maura really took life and crystallized as I wrote her. I felt alive and in tune with her psyche and I struggled to write the scenes involving Frank. The original inciting incident focused on Frank’s cancer diagnosis. I realized later the inciting incident was the argument that led to the rift between Frank and Maura. Specifically there was a powerful scene that occurred when Maura found herself homeless on the streets of Boston during a blizzard. She was six months pregnant.

This scene took place ten years before the original inciting incident. I had to move it up as close to the beginning of the story as I could. My challenge now is to intersperse key events that led to the estrangement ten years earlier with Frank’s quest to reconcile with his daughter. Complicating the task, Maura’s siblings, Junior and Kevin, play major roles in the events and there are chapters woven into the story from their points of view.

It will require much care and several rounds of meticulous review, but there are clear benefit to telling this story out of sequence.

Have you ever written a story that required an out-of-sequence narration? How did you deal with it?

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