We Are Water (Lamb)

We Are Water 
Wally Lamb, 2013
576 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061941023

In middle age, Annie Oh—wife, mother, and outsider artist—has shaken her family to its core. After twenty-seven years of marriage and three children, Annie has fallen in love with Viveca, the wealthy, cultured, confident Manhattan art dealer who orchestrated her professional success.

Annie and Viveca plan to wed in the Oh family's hometown of Three Rivers, Connecticut, where gay marriage has recently been legalized. But the impending wedding provokes some very mixed reactions and opens a Pandora's box of toxic secrets—dark and painful truths that have festered below the surface of the Ohs' lives.

We Are Water is an intricate and layered portrait of marriage, family, and the inexorable need for understanding and connection, told in the alternating voices of the Ohs—nonconformist Annie; her ex-husband, Orion, a psychologist; Ariane, the do-gooder daughter, and her twin, Andrew, the rebellious only son; and free-spirited Marissa, the youngest Oh. Set in New England and New York during the first years of the Obama presidency, it is also a portrait of modern America, exploring issues of class, changing social mores, the legacy of racial violence, and the nature of creativity and art.

With humor and breathtaking compassion, Wally Lamb brilliantly captures the essence of human experience in vivid and unforgettable characters struggling to find hope and redemption in the aftermath of trauma and loss. We Are Water is vintage Wally Lamb—a compulsively readable, generous, and uplifting masterpiece that digs deep into the complexities of the human heart to explore the ways in which we search for love and meaning in our lives. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—October 17, 1950
Where—Norwich, Connecticut, USA
Education—B.A., M.A., University of Connecticut;
   M.F.A., University of Vermont
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in Connecticut

Wally Lamb is an American author of several novels, including She's Come Undone (1992) and I Know This Much Is True (1998), The Hour I First Believed (2008), and We Are Water (2013). The first two books were Oprah Book Club selections. Lamb was the director of the Writing Center at Norwich Free Academy in Norwich from 1989 to 1998 and has taught Creative Writing in the English Department at the University of Connecticut.

Early life
Lamb was born to a working-class family in Norwich, Connecticut. Three Rivers, the fictional town where several of his novels are set, is based on Norwich and the nearby towns of New London, Willimantic, Connecticut, and Westerly, Rhode Island. As a child, Lamb loved to draw and create his own comic books—activities which, he says, gave him "a leg up" on the imagery and colloquial dialogue that characterize his stories. He credits his ability to write in female voices, as well as male, with having grown up with older sisters in a neighborhood largely populated by girls.

After graduating from high school, Lamb studied at the University of Connecticut during the turbulent early 1970s era of anti-war and civil-rights protests and student strikes. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Connecticut and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College.

Lamb began writing in 1981, the year he became a first-time father. Lamb's first published stories were short fictions that appeared in Northeast, a Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. "Astronauts," published in the Missouri Review in 1989, won the Missouri Review William Penden Prize and became widely anthologize

d. His first novel, She's Come Undone, was followed six years later by I Know This Much Is True, a story about identical twin brothers, one of whom develops paranoid schizophrenia. Both novels became number one bestsellers after Oprah Winfrey selected them for her popular Book Club. Lamb's third novel, The Hour I First Believed, published in 2008, interfaces fiction with such non-fictional events as the Columbine High School shooting, the Iraq War, and, in a story within the story, events of nineteenth-century America. Published the following year, Wishin' and Hopin' was a departure for Lamb: a short, comically nostalgic novel about a parochial school fifth grader, set in 1964. In We Are Water, Lamb returns to his familiar setting of Three Rivers. The novel focuses on art, 1950s-era racial strife, and the impact of a devastating flood on a Connecticut family.

Lamb taught English and writing for 25 years at the Norwich Free Academy, a regional high school that was his alma mater. In his last years at the school, Lamb designed and implemented the school's Writing Center, where he instructed students in writing across the disciplines. As a result of his work for this program, he was chosen the Norwich Free Academy's first Teacher of the Year and later was named a finalist for the honor of Connecticut Teacher of the Year (1989). From 1997 to 1999, he was an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Connecticut. As the school's Director of Creative Writing, he originated a student-staffed literary and arts magazine, The Long River Review.

Prison work
From 1999 to the present, Lamb has facilitated a writing program for incarcerated women at the York Correctional Institute, Connecticut's only women's prison in Niantic, Connecticut. The program has produced two collections of his inmate students' autobiographical writing, Couldn't Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters and I'll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison, both of which Lamb edited.

The publication of the first book became a source of controversy and media attention when, a week before its release, the State of Connecticut unexpectedly sued its incarcerated contributors—not for the six thousand dollars each writer would collect after her release from prison but for the entire cost of her incarceration, calculated at $117 per day times the number of days in her prison sentence. When one of the writers won a PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award, given to a writer whose freedom of speech is under attack, the prison destroyed the women's writing and moved to close down Lamb's program. These actions caught the interest of the CBS 60 Minute; the State of Connecticut settled the lawsuit and reinstated the program shortly before the show was aired.

Lamb says he draws influence from masters of long- and short-form fiction, among them John Updike, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Raymond Carver, and Andre Dubus.

He credits his perennial teaching of certain novels to high school students with teaching him about "the scaffolding" of longer stories. Among these, Lamb lists Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. He says Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other anthropological analyses of the commonalities of ancient myths from diverse world cultures helped him to figure out the ways in which stories, ancient and modern, can illuminate the human condition. Lamb has also stated that he is influenced by pop culture and artists who work in other media. Among these he mentions painters Edward Hopper and René Magritte.

Honors and awards
Lamb's writing awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, the Connecticut Center for the Book's Lifetime Achievement Award, selections by Oprah's Book Club and Germany's Bertelsmann Book Club, the Pushcart Prize, the New England Book Award for Fiction, and New York Times Notable Books of the Year listings.

She's Come Undone was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times's Best First Novel Award and one of People magazine's Top Ten Books of the Year. I Know This Much Is True won the Friends of the Library USA Readers' Choice Award for best novel of 1998 and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's Kenneth Johnson Award for its anti-stigmatizing of mental illness.

Teaching awards for Lamb include a national Apple Computers "Thanks to Teachers" Excellence Award and the Barnes and Noble "Writers Helping Writers" Award for his work with incarcerated women. Lamb has received Honorary Doctoral Degrees from several colleges and universities and was awarded Distinguished Alumni awards from Vermont College of Fine Arts and the University of Connecticut. (From Wikipedia. Retrieved 9/14/13.)

Book Reviews
We are water: "fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too." That's evident in this emotionally involving new novel.... At its heart is the Oh family: Orion, half Chinese and half Italian, a psychologist who never knew his father and has taken early retirement from his university rather than face trumped-up charges of sexual harassment; his wife, Annie, a shy, successful creator of angry installation art who survived foster care and carries a dark secret; and their three children..l. Clear and sweetly flowing; highly recommended. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal

Discussion Questions
1. Describe Anna and Orion Oh and their relationship. What factors drew them together and what drove them apart? What were your first impressions of each character? Did you see the characters in the same light by the novel's end? Think about their names. Are they fitting for these characters? What other elements like this did you notice throughout the novel?

2. Talk about the Oh children. How do each of them relate to their parents? Were Anna and Orion good parents? What makes a good parent? Are they equally culpable for their impact on their children? How much of our lives are shaped by our families, and how much by our own choices? Choose a character or two from the Oh family and use examples from the book to support your thoughts.

3. The story begins by talking about the artist Josephus Jones. What role does he play in the story and the Ohs' lives? He is called a narrative painter in the story. Explain that term, what it signifies for you.

4. Family, tragedy, art, violence, secrets, love, and transformation are the themes at the heart of We Are Water. By keeping things to ourselves and by sharing them inappropriately, are we doomed to keep repeating the mistakes of the past? How are Anna's secrets both destructive and productive? What about the secrets the rest of the family keeps?

5. What is the attraction between Anna and Viveca? What does Viveca offer Anna that Orion cannot? What are your impressions of Viveca?

6. As the story unfolds we learn about Anna as a mother and her relationship with Andrew, her only son. Why does she treat him the way that she does? Is she truly aware of her behavior? Why don't the children tell their father the truth about their mother? Were they protecting her?

7. Another supporting yet very important character in the novel is Kent. Share your thoughts about him. Does knowing his backstory affect your view? Do we in our hypercritical society lose sight of the fact that perpetrators are often victims themselves? What was Kent hoping for when he went to visit Anna on her wedding day?

8. Think about Orion. His profession is helping people, watching for signs, recognizing pain and rescuing his patients. How could he so spectacularly miss Anna's suppressed emotions and those of his children? Was he too busy tending to others to notice his own family's dysfunction? Could he have truly seen it or by being a part of this family was he too close?

9. Discuss Anna's art. Does it sound appealing to you? Would she have her art without her pain? How is she like Josephus Jones—what connects them?

10. After Anna shares her terrible secret with Andrew, he makes a crucial choice. What do you think of his actions? Was he morally justified? Is it good that he told his father about what happened? Would he feel better or worse if he confessed?

11. Discuss the significance of the title, We Are Water. How many meanings does it have? How does it connect to the final scene in the book?

12. How do each of the Ohs come to terms with who they are? Would you say that they—and the novel itself—have a happy ending?

13. Late in the novel, Orion mentions reading an article in the New York Times about scientists who studied the effects of reading fiction on the human brain. They found that reading fiction stimulates the brain in the same way that experiences in real life do. Why do you read fiction? Are novels and stories important, and if so, why? Does this experience match your own?

14. What did you take away from reading We Are Water? If you've read Wally Lamb's other books, how does its compare thematically?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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