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.