Family secrets submerge and nearly drown the Oh family in We Are Water, the latest great novel from Wally Lamb.
Lamb has always shown an uncanny ability to inhabit the skin and psyches of his characters, no matter the age or gender. Water's characters are as captivating as those in previous Lamb best sellers I Know This Much Is True and his first Oprah-anointed novel, 1992's She's Come Undone.
Lamb skillfully mines the darting, banal, petty, random and innermost thoughts of artist Annie Oh, her ex-husband Orion, their children and a few secondary characters. He also gets inside the head of a child molester, to squirming effect – it's not a head you really want to inhabit.
Annie's impending marriage to Viveca, the chic, slightly chilly art gallery owner whose marketing skills rocketed Annie to art world stardom, propels the plot. Annie's vague pre-wedding jitters prompt her to re-examine her life. Annie loves Viveca, but worries about how her family will react to her marrying a woman.
When Annie was 6, her mother and baby sister drowned in a freak flood in her hometown of Three Rivers, Conn. Her heartbroken father stumbled into alcoholism, leaving Annie in the care of her strange cousin Kent, who abuses young Annie just as he was abused as a boy.
Annie escapes Kent when she's sent to her first foster home and claws her way to adulthood with a series of dead-end jobs until she meets Orion, who is smitten by the fragile but feisty Annie. They marry and have three children, but domesticity takes a toll on Annie that she can only exorcise through her art.
The Ohs are complicated and compelling figures. Annie thinks she is protecting her family by not revealing the pain of her past, but hidden truths only beget more secrets and sorrow.
Art's power to provoke is a theme that wends its way through We Are Water. Annie and her family are periodically visited by the specter of Josephus Jones, an African-American primitive artist who lived on their property before he fell – or was pushed – into a well after painting a local white girl in his version of Adam and Eve.
It's the sign of a good novel when the reader slowly savors the final chapters, both eager to discover the ending and dreading saying goodbye to the characters.
We Are Water is a book worth diving into.