“I Know This Much is True”

January 13, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Posted in Fiction | Leave a comment

My book group read I Know This Much is True for our January selection.  We gave ourselves two months to read it, since we didn’t plan to meet over the holidays.  (It’s important to be realistic about page length if you want everyone to finish every selection, and as far as I know we’re still at 100% completion).

Reactions were somewhat mixed.  Two members had already read the book, and while they still loved it, one didn’t like it as well the second time; the other would bring it to a deserted island.  Our newest member said she forced herself through the first half, hit maybe a 100-page section when she was fully engaged and really loving it, and then fell into dislike again.  (I’m amazed that she got through it under those circumstances – hopefully it’s a sign that she’s very interested in committing to our group).  One member had a shipping snafu and was only able to get an audio version at the last minute, and it turned out to be abridged.  So abridged, in fact, that it only lasted six hours!  There were several points in the discussion where her jaw dropped because her version didn’t touch on that plot point in the slightest.  Then the rest of our jaws would drop, wondering how the story could be told while leaving out those details.  One of us had it on Sony Reader, so she was able to search for a particular word – ‘clippings’ if you’ve read the book – and find the gross-out scene we’d been discussing.  More jaw-dropping ensued.

Here’s the thing about Wally Lamb.  He writes beautifully, and I know from attending one of his readings that he really is a natural storyteller.  But he puts his characters through the wringer!  I invited the husband of one of our group members to come to our meeting – he’s my coworker, that’s how we met her – and he said he boycotts Wally Lamb for that reason.  “How could he do those things to such a nice person?”  I told him he might agree with Charles Darwin, who believed that stories with unhappy endings should be illegal to publish.  I understand the perspective that it’s painful and exhausting to read sad stories.

For me, though it’s compelling.  I’m with the Greeks on the catharsis theory.  For instance, I found the film version of House of Sand and Fog absolutely mesmerizing, and I thought The English Patient was far more memorable than it would have been had it ended with a traditional fairy-tale romance ending.  Know what I mean?  Life is sad.  Life is sad for most people.  Life is sad for most people most of the time!  It takes an artist of rare calibre to reflect this truth to us carefully, accurately, while still finding some beauty in it – and sometimes humor, the way Lamb can.

Now, I make a major effort to try to keep my reviews as vague and spoiler-free as possible, so if you haven’t yet read IKTMIT and you intend to, stop here.  Two of us felt that Dominick and Thomas’s names were transposed and were more appropriate for the opposite character.  Joy was pretty much universally reviled, which I didn’t understand because she was probably my second favorite (after Dr. Patel).  I put it out there that I couldn’t understand why Dominick thought he might be the product of incest for more than about 30 seconds, because it seemed unlikely to me that this could have gone on for 15-20 years before a pregnancy ensued, but nobody agreed with me.  We were divided on whether Papa’s journal was intrusive or the highlight of the book.  (The journal was entirely missing from the abridged version, as was everything about the house-painting job and its aftermath).  We agreed that the portrayal of the paranoid schizophrenic seemed believable, but were divided on Dominick’s reliability as a narrator and whether he could have achieved that level of insight and stability after his earlier pattern of temper tantrums and destructive behavior.  I think that’s why the book was written in the style of a memoir, rather than a journal, to echo Papa’s, because the insight would not have been there earlier on.  “Twins” – pairs of things or parallel events – were a major theme.

Next month, Geek Love!

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