THE RISE TO FAME of Wally Lamb here in the United States was sudden and unexpected–as it always is when talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey chooses her new book of the month. The book was his first novel, She’s Come Undone, and while it dealt with a subject her predominately middle-aged female audience would probably be interested in–an overweight woman’s overdue coming of age and recovery of her self-esteem–Oprah was taking a chance on him: Wally Lamb was the book club’s first male author.
Well before Oprah announces her choice on TV, Oprah’s production company Harpo calls not only the author but the author’s publishers to tell them the good news and give them time to get the presses rolling. For She’s Come Undone, which had sold a modest number in its first incarnation (say, 20- to 30,000 units–very good for a first novel), Wally Lamb’s publishers rushed out 750,000 trade paperback copies and a smaller run of hardbacks. The week before Oprah announced the book as that month’s selection, She’s Come Undone sold less than a hundred units nationwide; the week after, it was #1 on the bestseller list.
Before Oprah chose it, She’s Come Undone had received decent critical reviews–excellent, actually, for a first book. It was funny and bright and at times deeply serious. It fit that werewolf-like category of the popular literary novel inhabited by writers like Anne Tyler and John Irving. Places as disparate as People Magazine and The New York Times singled it out for praise, though few people actually read it. The publishing house, it was said, was disappointed at its sales. Then Oprah.
Wally Lamb at that time was doing what he’d always done–teaching high school and working on a novel. When the money and fan letters rolled in, he didn’t change a thing, except that now his time was no longer his own. He had to battle to find the hours to write. The novel turned out to be long, over 900 pages, an ambitious undertaking for any writer (not to mention reader), and like any second novelist he was worried it would be judged against the success of his first.
It was, by Oprah. She liked the manuscript so much that even before it hit the presses he became the first writer to have two novels chosen as monthly selections of her book club. The hardback went straight to #1. This spring, the paperback was #1, and now all summer you see it at the beach, at the pool, on the dock. The readers are invariably women. My mother-in-law is reading it, and the photographer who came to shoot me the other day.
I Know This Much is True is a long but not a difficult or truly complex book. It follows the tribulations of Dominick Birdsey and his troubled relationships with his schizophrenic twin brother Thomas, their dying mother, their mean stepfather, and his ex-wife and temporary girlfriend. Thomas is constantly in trouble, and Dominick constantly trying to save him from himself. Establishing their bond requires flashback chapters to fill in their history. Born minutes apart (one in the last seconds of 1949, the other in the first of 1950), they straddle the century’s midpoint, allowing the author to connect their coming-of-age–like Forrest Gump’s–with major events in recent American history. The injustice of why Thomas is mentally ill and himself healthy gnaws at Dominick, and he blames his stepfather for bullying Thomas throughout their childhood, and his mother for not intervening. In addition, Dominick has never known who their biological father is. Halfway through, Lamb introduces a second storyline consisting of a memoir written by their mother’s father, which may shed light on the mystery.
All of this is conducted briskly, with humor and an eye for detail and American speech reminiscent of Stephen King. The grandfather’s journal has the feel of a bawdy Italian folktale, and in the end, as in Dickens, coincidence and the hopes of our characters prevail, though not without sentimental deaths and many tears. Dominick learns his lessons, gives up his anger and becomes a better man–in short, he matures and by opening his heart accepts the foibles of adult life. While at times it’s a rocky ride, I Know This Much is True reaffirms all that is good and comforts the reader, much as She’s Come Undone did.
This is true of most if not all of Oprah’s picks. Usually a child in peril is the dramatic vehicle, with a mother coming to the rescue, or a family falling apart and a mother having to pull it back together. Illness. Accident. Separation. Basically, these books show the family structure unravelling, middle class life edging toward chaos, only to be saved in the end by love. Nothing wrong with that, though a steady diet could be stultifying.
Here, many serious writers applaud Oprah for giving her audience better books than they normally would be reading (Danielle Steel and Harlequin romances, it’s supposed), as if one day they might graduate to the adult’s table. But I notice that I don’t see those writers reading Oprah’s picks.
Bertelsmann’s recent choice to publish I Know This Much is True as part of their own book club is a considered move, betting on the novel’s #1 stature in America. Having printed several hundred thousand copies, they seem prepared to launch a publicity campaign to insure the book’s success in Germany. Seeing as Oprah is not there to help it along, and that, in translation, it will weigh in at well over 1000 pages, they’ll have to.
But sometimes that’s enough–the buzz leading to name recognition. And as Oprah’s supporters say (and it’s true), there are worse books on the bestseller list. In this case, most of them.