10 reviews

We Are Water: A Novel
by Wally Lamb

Published: 2013-10-22
Hardcover : 576 pages
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32 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 9 of 10 members

We Are Water is a disquieting and ultimately uplifting novel about a marriage, a family, and human resilience in the face of tragedy, from Wally Lamb, the New York Times bestselling author of The Hour I First Believed and I Know This Much Is True.

After 27 years of marriage and three ...

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We Are Water is a disquieting and ultimately uplifting novel about a marriage, a family, and human resilience in the face of tragedy, from Wally Lamb, the New York Times bestselling author of The Hour I First Believed and I Know This Much Is True.

After 27 years of marriage and three children, Anna Oh—wife, mother, outsider artist—has fallen in love with Viveca, the wealthy Manhattan art dealer who orchestrated her success. They plan to wed in the Oh family’s hometown of Three Rivers in Connecticut. But the 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 a layered portrait of marriage, family, and the inexorable need for understanding and connection, told in the alternating voices of the Ohs—nonconformist, Anna; 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. 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 compassion, Wally Lamb brilliantly captures the essence of human experience and the ways in which we search for love and meaning in our lives.

Editorial Review

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Chapter Ten

Ruth Fletcher

March 12, 1963

We buried my husband Claude today, finally. Me and Belinda Jean. His emphysema took him nine days ago, but the wake and funeral had to be put off because of the flood. McPadden's Funeral Parlor was in the water's path.

I cried when Mr. McPadden called to say they had to postpone things. The flood water had rose up to the windshield of his hearse, he said. He went on about spark plugs and distributor caps, but car talk is Greek to me. He also said the wool rugs in the two rooms where they wake the dead got soaked and probably would take their sweet time drying out, even outside on the lawn in the warm sun. The weather's been so strange lately. For three days, it rained like the dickens—a cold rain it was, just this side of snow. But the day after the dam broke, it got sunny and warm and it's been that way since. Too warm, if you ask me. Seventy-seven degrees in the middle of March? The TV said yesterday's temperature broke some record.

Claude's wake was last night, from 7 to 9 o'clock. Sixteen people showed up to pay their respects, not counting Belinda Jean and me. I know because when we were the only ones left, I counted the names in the signing book.

Claude's sister Verna come over from Rockville, which I appreciated because she's wheelchair-bound from her diabetes. Her daughter Carol brought her. My second cousin Wanda Brautigan came, too--her and her husband, Clifford. And a few of the men Claude worked with at the ice house. Not that foreman, though; there was never any love lost between Claude and him. Oh, and our neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Skloot: they came. I thought it was kind of them to pay their respects, especially since Claude had made that big stink about Mr. Skloot letting those colored brothers, the Joneses, live out back on his property. I never liked it that Claude was a member of the Connecticut Ku Klux, and that he was a part of the window-smashing that night out back on the Skloots' property. My feeling when it comes to the coloreds is: If they don't bother me, I won't bother them. That's not to say that I approve of whites and coloreds marrying each other, which was what Claude and the others were so hot under the collar about: when Rufus Jones, the older brother, was living with that white wife of his from Germany or wherever she came from and drove her all around town in his flashy convertible. Gerta van Hofwegen: that name sounds fancy, but she was cheap goods. Still is, I guess. She was in the arrest report a few months back on a morals charge—something about performing immoral acts on the men at Electric Boat during their lunch break. Well, that's what she gets for marrying out of her race, I suppose. Her husband come to a bad end, too, of course. Got hit by the flood water and drowned in the river behind the movie theater. Divine justice, I guess. I don't think the Good Lord ever intended for coloreds to mix with whites, because if He did, why would He make us so different? Our noses and hair and such, and the fact that Negroes rut like animals from being oversexed? Back when I was twelve years old and bled for the first time, my mama, with her shy ways, couldn't bring herself to explain the birds and the bees to me, so she had her sister Bitty take me aside and explain the particulars. And that was the first thing Aunt Bitty told me: that now that I had reached womanhood, I wasn't to look a colored man or a colored boy in the eye because if I did, it would stoke their fire and I'd get raped. When she told me what rape was, it was all I could do not to put my hands over my ears and run from the room. Then she told me about what husbands did to their wives in private, and that that was how babies got made, and that for some women this felt natural and pleasurable and for other women it was something they had to do out of duty. I asked her what the difference was between that and rape, and she said the difference was that the one was natural and decent, the way God designed things so that His people would populate the earth, and the other was unnatural and indecent.. . . . I don't call them niggers anymore, like I used to; I've made an effort to stop doing that after I learned that it was disrespectful and ungodly to use that word. And I don't contend, like some do, that them and us are two different species, or that we have souls and they don't. We can interbreed, I know that, but I don't believe it's what the Good Lord ever intended. We're different is all I'm saying, the coloreds and us. Maybe that's why Rufus Jones drowned that night. The Good Lord works in mysterious ways, so maybe it was divine justice.

But jeepers, that flood was a terrible thing—seven lives lost and half the downtown stores ruined. All the next day, there were helicopters flying overhead, and Walter Cronkite talked about Three Rivers on the news that night. Governor Dempsey traveled over from Hartford to look at the damage and talk to the families. I thought that was a merciful thing for him to do. I didn't vote for him last election because he's a Catholic and a Democrat. We got one of them living in the White House, and one's enough for me, whether what they say is true or not: that if it come down to it, a Catholic would be loyal to the Pope in Rome rather than to the Constitution. But I did appreciate the effort the Governor made. They closed the high school for three days in a row so that the students could go downtown and help with the cleanup. The radio's been saying those boys should all make sure their shots are in order, though, because the water might have bacteria in it. I'm not sure what the danger is. Typhoid, maybe.

Two of the flood victims were waked at McPadden's last night, same as Claude. It was that young mother and her baby. Claude's coffin was laid out in the smaller room, theirs in the bigger one across the hall. Belinda Jean and I got to calling hours early, and when I looked in the other room and saw that baby's casket next to her mother's, it nearly broke my heart. Myrna O'Day, the woman's name was, but the paper said everyone called her Sunny because she had a sunny disposition. The baby's name was Grace. They found that poor doomed child's body tangled up in a tree that got knocked over. And this was a strange thing: they found the mother floating in the basement of McPadden's of all places, where Claude's corpse was waiting to be waked and buried. It said in the paper that the printing company down the street from McPadden's had a lot of flood damage, too, and that the water was so powerful, it moved two heavy printing presses from one side of the floor to the other. I suspect Claude got moved around some, too. I could see it in my mind: his coffin floating around down there like a boat with him in it. I didn't ask if that was the case, though, and Mr. McPadden didn't say. But at least Claude was in his coffin, or so I choose to believe.

The paper said that, after the dam broke and all the water in Wequonnoc Pond went racing toward the downtown, the ice on top of the pond cracked and broke into big chunks that traveled along with the rushing water. It's been a cold winter and the paper said those blocks of ice were a foot thick and as long and wide as cars, some of them. That's what caused a lot of the damage in town, I guess: all that ice smashing into things, storefronts and such. I read that one of those ice chunks stove in the double doors at McPadden's where they bring the bodies in. What I figure is that the water must have carried poor Sunny O'Day through those open doors, and that's why they found her in McPadden's basement. It's hard to understand a peculiarity like that—a drowned woman coming to rest inside a funeral parlor. It's like Reverend Frickee always says: The Good Lord moves in strange and mysterious ways that aren't ours to understand.


Copyright 2013 by Wally Lamb. Used by permission of HarperCollins view abbreviated excerpt only...

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?

Suggested by Members

Why did the Andrew's siblings keep the abuse a secret?
What could Viveca give that Orion couldn't ?
by Bverno (see profile) 06/14/16

What do you think happened to Anna's art after she started confronting her past?
by SamKelley (see profile) 01/22/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

“We are water: ‘fluid, flexible when we have to be. But strong and destructive, too.’ That’s evident in this emotionally involving new novel from the author of She’s Come Undone….Clear and sweetly flowing; highly recommended.”— Library Journal, starred review

“It’s a 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.”— USA Today, 4-star review

Book Club Recommendations

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "We Are Water"by Bverno (see profile) 06/14/16

Wally Lamb is such a wonderful storyteller!
The characters were well developed, and the story moved at a pace that kept you reading. I definitely recommend this book!

by colleenberg1 (see profile) 09/04/14

  "A big disappoinment"by jodene (see profile) 08/08/14

If someone would not have picked this for our book club, I never would have finished reading it. The story was not connected well and it was such a disappointing read because Lamb inserted every current... (read more)

  "We are Water"by martykalkman (see profile) 08/08/14

I found I wanted to keep reading to see how it was all was going to end.

  "We Are Water"by mkcooke (see profile) 04/09/14

  "Lots of twists and turns at the end"by skinnyatlas (see profile) 03/09/14

Some thought this started slowly but everyone agreed they did not see the end coming!!! Well written, loved the characterizations

  "We Are Water"by DoñaJulia (see profile) 02/08/14

I was kept engaged every chapter.

  "We are Water - Wally Lamb"by mresler (see profile) 01/24/14

  "We Are Water"by SamKelley (see profile) 01/22/14

The network of connections, the pervasiveness of secrets, and the transformation of individuals make this book worth reading and discussing.

  "We are Water."by Hanneke (see profile) 01/22/14

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