Dominick Birdsey, the narrator and main character of Wally Lamb’s sprawling novel, is a man struggling to come to terms with a life marred by tragedy. The novel moves through a year of that life, seemingly the worst, but also in some ways, the best, as Birdsey fights for both his brother and himself. And while an 800-page novel may seem daunting and perhaps overindulgent, each page reveals both the depth and width of human experience.
As in She’s Come Undone, Lamb focuses on the ravages of mental illness, this time from the perspective of the caregiver. As a twin, Dominick can’t help but wonder why the disease that took his brother seems not to have claimed him. Yet, he also harbors jealousy at the close relationship his twin enjoyed with their mother. The theme of twins, especially the lost twin, is powerfully interwoven throughout the novel.
And, while the narrative focuses on a year in Dominick’s life, it sprawls across place and time as Dominick reads his grandfather’s memoir, the story of an Italian immigrant whose material success was marred by his spiritual failing. With Dominick, we are alternatively fascinated and disgusted by his grandfather whose story reveals much about the human ability to justify even the most brutal of actions.
There is much sadness in this story. Yet, there is also magic and mystery as Dominick follows the strands of his own story and that of his family to discover the past and forge a stronger future for himself and those he loves. While 800 pages may seem overwhelming and even a bit self-indulgent, my interest never flagged as the complex, sympathetic characters revealed much of the way we all live.
So far, I have stuck with my resolution not to buy books. The local library is tiny but has a great fiction selection. I could have easily walked away with three or four when I visited earlier this week. I limited myself to just two: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, a tale of Mormons and polygamy set in the time of Brigham Young, and A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear, which is part of her Maisie Dobbs mystery series. It was the latter that caused the most temptation I’ve faced so far.
I have read the first two books in the series–Maisie Dobbs and Birds of a Feather. But this one is the eighth book in the series and as I read the cover blurb, I realized I wanted to continue to read them in order since besides being great mysteries, they tell the story of Maisie’s life. All the books are available on the Kindle; there is even a bundled set of the 3rd and 4th books for a mere $15. And Kindle books don’t take up any shelf space at all. But a resolution is a resolution so I headed to the library website and put in my request to have it brought from another branch. Now, I wait patiently to get the email indicating it has arrived. In the mean time, I am immersed in I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb, which came form my own collection.
I also kept my resolution at the library itself which is selling a bag of books for just $2! Truth be told, there wasn’t much of interest on the carts but that hasn’t ever stopped me before.
NB: I made it through a visit to Books A Million where I drank a latte, surfed the web and only browsed. But they gave me a $5 coupon for online and I ended up with the second volume of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles, The Pale Horseman. The first book in the series–The Last Kingdom–is already on the shelf and the sixth volume–The Death of Kings–just came out. LOTS more reading to look forward.