"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Review #52: I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb

Many, many years ago, I read Wally Lamb's first book She's Come Undone. I can honestly say that the only thing I remember about that book is that the main character's mother is killed when a tractor trailer crashes in to her tollbooth. Consequently, I think about that every time I drive through a toll booth. Anyway, when I read it, I happened to live with two other girls, one of whom had had the pleasure of knowing Wally Lamb as a teacher in her hometown, and so for Christmas one year she gave the two of us autographed copies of his newest book at the time, I Know This Much Is True. But I was about 23 years old, heavy in to reading bodice rippers and other light fare, and certainly wasn't interested in 900 plus pages about a paranoid schizophrenic and his forty-something-year-old twin brother.

In other words, I wasn't exactly the target audience.

But since I never get rid of books, I still have it, and a few months ago, JB was perusing my shelves and saw it, and asked what I thought. When I confessed that I'd never read it, he was horrified at the lapse in my bibliography and said it was one of his favorites. He has yet to steer me wrong, so I gave Wally another shot, and I'm so glad that I did.

Dominick Birdsey is a forty-something-year-old housepainter, who frankly isn't very good at or motivated about his job. A former teacher, he gave up the profession after losing his baby to SIDS. A divorce soon followed, although he is clearly still hopelessly in love with his ex-wife, despite being involved with another woman. Dominick's twin, Thomas, is a paranoid schizophrenic, and the novel opens with Thomas cutting off his hand in the public library in an act of political defiance. That sets off Dominick's fight to keep Thomas safe and sane, which appears more and more impossible the deeper Dominick goes in to the world of mental health care. Along the way, Dominick is forced to confront his past, his own mental health issues, and some pretty horrific family secrets. 

The novel is supposed to be Dominick's story, and Lamb deftly weaves the tale. From his earliest memories of his mother to the moment he realized that Thomas was different, from falling in love with his former wife to his tenuous relationship with his abusive stepfather, from his guilt over being "the normal twin" to his relief at being "the normal twin", there isn't anything about Dominick that the reader doesn't learn. And sometimes, the reader learns it before Dominick himself does in his reluctant therapy sessions with the doctor who is also treating Thomas.

But it was Thomas who captured me. Many of us here are affected by mental health issues - whether it's our own battle to fight or we are fighting beside someone (or someones) we love - and watching Thomas tore at my heart in a very real and unexpected way. Reading about Dominick's struggle to help his brother was difficult, and Lamb perfectly captured the feelings of guilt and love and helplessness and resentment and all the other emotions that boil to the surface in these situations, but there was something about Thomas - more than Dominick - that I couldn't get out of my head. Dominick would eventually be fine, I knew, or at least some semblance of fine, but I worried about Thomas. I fretted over him and his situation, and wanted to reach through the pages and call the doctors in the mental hospital and give them suggestions. I wanted to say, "But he doesn't like it when you do that. Have you tried this?" I wanted to tell them that I knew it was against the rules but he needed Dominick today. And SPOILER: I can't remember the last time I cried as hard at a character's death as I did when Thomas died. It was a strange mixture of pain and relief and sadness and joy that left me uncomfortable with my own feelings about it for longer than I think is probably healthy. 

This is not an easy book to read. It's long. It's cumbersome to carry; it doesn't exactly fit in my purse. And the print is tiny, which my old eyes do not appreciate, especially as the hour grows late. There are long, meandering chapters written in italics, the translation of Dominick and Thomas' grandfather's diary, which I admit I skimmed but then went back and read again, sure that there were clues hidden in those pages. The subject matter is daunting and scary and not a little bit challenging to tackle. There are triggers for many readers here: assault, abuse, death, divorce, infidelity. But it's a necessary book to read. It's the book you haul around with you for two weeks, even though it's heavy and the print is tiny, and even though you have to read the next two chapters in sixty second snippets because the kids just won't leave you alone. It's a book that won't let you leave it behind.

I am not a smart man, particularly, but one day, at long last, I stumbled from the dark woods of my own, and my family's, and my country's past, holding in my hands these truths: that love grows from the rich loam of forgiveness; that mongrels make good dogs; that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things. This much, at least, I've figured out. I know this much is true.

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