Annie Oh’s wedding day ought to be a source of joy for her and her family. Instead, it is a car wreck, as Annie’s career, her childhood, her own children, and her ex-husband all collide in the small town of Three Rivers, Conn. With each emotional clash, the drama ratchets up further, but in Wally Lamb’s strangely superficial new novel, none of them really matter as none really come to life.
The signifiers start early in “We Are Water,” which is told in a series of alternating first-person narratives. Annie, an experimental artist, is at the center of them all, however, and her history, as well as her purported gift, drives the plot.
As the action begins, she has left her husband for another woman, Viveca, her high-powered dealer. Annie’s ex-husband, Orion, meanwhile has lost his job as a college psychologist through the double whammy of a sexual harassment allegation and a student suicide.
Their three adult children, who also have their say, include a flailing fledgling actress who drinks too much, an unattractive do-gooder on her way to becoming a single mother, and an Army nurse with anger issues. The Army nurse’s fiancée is a right-wing conservative, which guarantees some tension as her future mother-in-law’s wedding approaches, but all the children will get their turn to express displeasure, frustration, and, of course, ultimately connection with the family that spawned them.
Lamb has written multiple bestsellers, and his popularity likely will not wane with this, his fourth full-scale novel. “We Are Water” has all the touchstones of a potboiler: multigenerational family saga, high finance, abuse, creativity, sex, and even love.
What it doesn’t have is much grounding in anything concrete. Characters, including Annie and Viveca, declare their affection without displaying any apparent compatibility and are employed in professions despite the lack of evidence of the expected, necessary skills. The psychologist who is blind to clear signs of trauma, the violent nurse, and the whiny self-involved relief worker might be ironic.
In his main character, however, Lamb gives us an artist with no creative process. Although we are told repeatedly of Annie’s genius, of the “cyclone” that compels her to “[m]ake art,” the only time we are privy to her actual practice is when, inspired by an angry outburst, she throws wine on a dress. “I do it again: pour, splash. I feel like Jackson Pollock must have felt.” That’s a lot of feeling, but beyond this splash there’s very little tactile (or even visual) description of what she actually does or how she does it.
Maybe that’s just as well. When Lamb tries to show, rather than tell, he gives us caricature. We know Orion has arrived on Cape Cod when a waitress tries to interest him in “cawn frittuhs.” His method of signifying several of the African-American characters — Deep South dialect written phonetically — is worse: “You gon’ tell Missuz I been rippin’ smokes?”
Internal monologues may not be as patronizing, but they are wildly inconsistent. In Annie’s memories, for example, she switches from childlike descriptions of masturbation to a clinical vocabulary within pages. Meanwhile, when the actress daughter runs afoul of a coke-fueled celebrity, the would-be rapist uses a strangely coy term for his intended sexual assault.
Lamb’s real-world work with the incarcerated — he leads writing workshops at a women’s prison — may have helped provide the one bit of authenticity. The voice of Kent, a sex offender, is reptilian, but consistent and truly scary. As is perhaps fitting, he’s the one character who is not given a chance at redemption. For everyone else, crises are simply opportunities for self-improvement. Or maybe another bestseller.