Wednesday, May 20, 2009

All Over The Map - In a Good Way


The Hour I First Believed
by Wally Lamb

A couple of reviews that I read of this latest by Wally Lamb complained at the breadth of issues that he takes on in this weighty book. It is true that The Hour I First Believed delves into many intense topics. A few of the prevalent ones are school shootings (especially the Columbine, Colorado 1999 shooting), marital communication, alcoholism, child abuse, adultery, vengeance, homosexuality, faith (and adversity's impact on it and vice versa) prison reform, drug addiction, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, unwanted pregnancies, troubled teenagers, and family secrets. However, I disagree with the reviewers who saw this as a weakness in the book. Lamb ties all these themes together amazingly well.

All of these things are part of life - they do not all occur in every life, but every life has its share of pain and sorrow. There certainly are times when things pile one on top of the other and weigh an individual down (and/or tear a family apart). Sadly, this is the way life can be - there can be a snowball effect of awful things that lead to more horrible consequences. Some people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time don't ever recover. There is a progression to Lamb's narrative that makes sense - it never seemed like he was flitting around. Layer by layer, he constructs Caelum and Maureen's story in a way that is not just readable, but compelling. He also brings in the ancillary characters and their issues with a logical flow - these characters contribute to the books whole. He has created an improbable family of wounded people trying their best to help heal each other.

I have read all three of Wally Lamb's novels, and have enjoyed them all. I believe this is his best so far, though, perhaps because it seems the closest to his own heart. The prison story line is based at least partially on his own work with the inmates of a Women's Correctional Center (he has edited two volumes of the women's writings, which I am eager to read). Many of the parts of this story are dark, there is no question, and things do not wind up tidy or "fixed" at the end. Amidst all the sadness, though, there are consistent threads of hope and redemption. There were times when the characters disappointed me, and times when I wished that things would turn out differently, but at no point did I cease to care what happened to them. I even found myself hoping that Lamb would write a sequel to this one at some point. I don't know, though, some sequels really crash and burn. Perhaps best to imagine the rest of their lives for myself.

Lamb's writing is not as poetic as some other novelists' (Anne Tyler and Jayne Ann Phillips come to mind), but he writes a darn good story. His ear for dialogue is strong, as is his grasp of detail. He is able to pull all these threads together into a coherent whole that reminds us of the varied forms that love can take. And the title - it all comes together on the last page in a way that I found extraordinarily moving. This is a good one - read it.

Reverent Reader

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