I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb was recommended to me a while back, as you’ll see in a moment. It’s the second book I’ve read for the 2014 TRB Pile Challenge. (Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, which was phenomenal, was the first.)
About the Book:
Dominick Birdsey has a lot going on. His twin brother, Thomas, is mentally unstable. He’s still in love with his ex-wife, Dessa, and not much into his current (and much younger) girlfriend, Joy. The only family he really has to turn to is Ray, the stepfather he’s been severely at odds with since the day Ray came into Dominick’s life. On top of all that is Dominick’s lifelong quest to discover who his real father was, something his mother withheld from him even on her deathbed. She did give him a copy of her father’s life story, written in Italian, before she passed away, but the woman Dominick hired to translate it into English disappeared shortly thereafter, taking the manuscript with her.
What unfolds over the next 897 pages is a multifaceted story. Events swirl around Dominick. Things happen to him. Memories wash over him. Surprises and coincidences ambush him. And through it all, he struggles to become a different person — maybe not perfect, but at least better — than he is when his story opens.
There’s a bit of a sentimental story behind why I Know This Much Is True found its way onto my reading list. My friend and I used to visit a particular favorite elementary school teacher after we’d moved on to high school, but after graduation we lost touch with him. After college, we found an old address for him and mailed a card that included our email addresses, hoping somehow our card would find him and we’d hear from him again. Somehow, it did, and he sent us an email. It was the last thing we heard from him before he passed away. In it, he recommended I Know This Much Is True. That was in 2008. I’ve avoided Lamb’s novels because of the mixed reviews I’ve heard of She’s Come Undone, but I decided it was time I at least gave this one a chance.
I Know This Much Is True is one of those rare novels that actually deserves to be almost 900 pages long. Anything less, and Dominick’s inner journey would have felt too compressed to be believable. As it is, the situations that pelt him throughout the story seem improbable when taken together. Yet somehow, Lamb manages to make it all hang together. He also manages to walk Dominick, if not through a soul-deep transformation, at least to the edge of it. Enough that you know he’s going to be ok, that you can close the book without worrying about what will happen to him.
Lamb does an excellent job capturing Dominick’s voice. I can still hear his pessimistic sarcasm, his quick temper, the dialogue in his head. The novel is written in the first person, so most of what we get is Dominick’s perception of the other characters and of himself. Yet Lamb also manages to show, through words and gestures and reactions, how maybe Dominick’s perspective isn’t 100 percent accurate. And gradually, reluctantly, Dominick begins to come around, too.
By no means did Lamb neglect the other characters to pour all his attention into Dominick. The novel is peopled with an impressively large and very real cast of supporting characters. They include Joy the girlfriend, Dessa the ex-wife, Ray the stepfather, Thomas the brother, Doc Patel the psychologist, Lisa the social worker, Leo the best friend, and Ralph the figure from Dominick’s past. Tertiary characters get enough attention that you actually remember them. And Lamb does a masterful job fitting all these characters into Dominick’s memories, too. Reaching all the way back to childhood, these memories show not only Dominick’s life, but the lives of those whose stories touched (and continue to touch) his. Far from being static, these tangential characters become grown-up versions of themselves, too.
I Know This Much Is True is certainly not a happy book. There are a lot of terrible things that happen in it. There’s plenty of sadness and hardship. But it’s the kind of story you’re glad you stuck with when at last you reach the final page. It was just the right balance for me, and I’m so happy I made it part of my 2014 TBR Pile Challenge list.
The Verdict: Excellent
If long, sustained stories are your thing, I think you’d like I Know This Much Is True. I thought it was very well done and was pleasantly surprised by how absorbed in the story I became and how much I liked it in the end. I have The Hour I First Believed on my shelf and am now curious to see if that one is as good!
What book that you’ve read for sentimental purposes turned out to be excellent?