We Are Water is a story about love and family, as well as how much pain family members can cause one another. Families are supposed to be the one safe haven a person has in this world, so when that safe haven disappears, it has a far-reaching impact on everyone. The Oh children experience some of this trauma at the announcement of their mother’s pending marriage to another woman. Still reeling from their parents’ separation and divorce, they must reconcile the natural feelings of loss and abandonment with their personal opinions on homosexuality. As everyone struggles to accept Annie’s decisions and prepare for her new stage in life, readers are taken on a ride through the complexity of family. With shocking reveals and surprise events, the Oh family must decide where their loyalties lie and just how far they will go to protect their loved ones.
All of the characters within We Are Water are intricate and fully developed. A reader’s shifting opinions regarding each character emphasize the complex relationships within the Oh family and serve as strong reminders that one can never judge a person on just one situation or scene. The idea of a family having to reconcile not only a divorce scenario but also a gay remarriage is thoroughly modern and wonderfully complex, using the family as a microcosm for each element of the ongoing gay rights arguments. However, Annie’s pending marriage is just a catalyst for the rest of the story, as each character must reconcile the new family dynamic with his or her own inner complications. Even better, as soon as readers become comfortable with each of the characters, their motivations, and their desires, Mr. Lamb complicates matters with two key scenes that literally change everything. To say too much more is to build up expectations and create scenarios where readers are looking for clues to these big events, but suffice it to say that these scenes take a beautiful family story and make it simply extraordinary.
Trauma and loss are two key themes of We Are Water. By flipping back and forth between characters’ points of view as well as the use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and especially the use of well-placed minor characters, readers can understand just how insidious loss and trauma is to a person’s psyche and how one person’s trauma trickles down and impacts so many others. That Annie has psychological issues is not a major surprise given some of the things about which she hints early within the novel. The depths of her issues though does not become apparent until more than halfway through the novel, once readers have had a chance to get multiple versions of a story and are able to flesh out the details Annie conveniently ignores or is incapable of acknowledging. That her behavior, which is a direct result of what occurred to her as a child, impacts her actions towards her children, her husband, and fuels her art is not necessarily a surprise, but the depths of her pain and the damage it causes for others is truly heartbreaking.
Mr. Lamb’s careful word-crafting makes the Oh family come alive. It is easy to sink into the novel and become fully absorbed in their individual and family dramas. A reader feels as if s/he is a member of the Oh family and is learning about the family secrets at the same time as everyone else. The inclusive feel of the narrative makes it simultaneously easier to empathize with each of the characters and yet causes readers to shy away from their roiling emotions caused by their perceived direct involvement in the family.
Exquisitely told, Wally Lamb treats readers to an intricate and vibrant glimpse into a thoroughly modern family during the very dynamic recent past, proving how complex our lives have become and the toll that complexity plays on the family as an organism. The characters are rich in detail and vibrate with vitality, while the unearthed secrets and shared drama bridges the gap between book and reader. We Are Water is a beautifully wrought and timeless story of the ties that bind and break.