I wanted to read this book when it first published in 1999. When I stumbled upon the new book shelf last month, I knew I couldn’t pass it up this time. So I resolved to read this 897 pages thickster, no matter what.
The book open with Thomas Birdsey committed a self mutilation act in the library to prove a point. To prove that it was national mistake to go to war in Iraq. The news made headlines, Dominick, his twin, refusing the doctor’s request for consent to detach his body part. Thomas was sent to high security prison on a pretext that if he can commit such crime in the public he is capable to harm the public. As Dominique fought the bureaucrats to get his brother out from prison, he met Lisa the doctor who handles Thomas case and found himself attending weekly self discovery with sari-clad and Shiva worshipping psychologist Dr. Patel. Most of the time he is caught in the reverie of his past. We are brought back to the 1969 – 1970 or earlier to see how both Thomas and Dominick was brought up. Thomas was their mother’s (Concettina, Connie) favourite and received the most bashing up from their step father, Ray Birdsey. Dominick is the tougher one with best friend Leo, spawning a lie about Ralph Drinkwater (whose sister met a tragic death as well) to get their way out of trouble. The Birdsey twins and Leo grew up with Ralph Drinkwater and never get along because Ralph was coloured. After college, Dominick married Dessa, not willing to be left out, Angie (Dessa’s sister) married Leo. Dominick graduated from college and became a teacher, but his baby girl died and on impulse had a vasectomy (this is the stupidest part of the book). Dessa left him. Dominick has a live-in aerobics instructor girlfriend named Joy, who has a perverted fantasy with one of her relative (you will find many perverted ideas in the book), who left Dominick after a confession of the shameful things she did. But she came back a year after, begging Dominick to take care of her little girl, Tyfannie, because she contracted AIDS.
What had Felice said? Believe in fate? Go with the flow? Maybe that was the big cosmic joke: you could spend your whole life banging your head against the wall and all it boiled down to was fortune cookie philosophy. Go with the flow. Which, come to think of it, was what people did when they drowned…….
So as you can see how unfortunate Dominick life is. Dominick Birdsey’s entire life has been compromised by Thomas, the paranoid schizophrenic twin he both loves and resents. The brothers are physical mirror images who grow into distinct yet connected entities in small-town Connecticut. From childhood, Dominic fights for separation in a house of fear. But his talent for survival comes at enormous personal cost.
His weekly conversation with Dr. Patel prompted him to recall his painful past:
The stream of memory may lead you to the river of understanding. And understanding, in turn, may be a tributary to the river of forgiveness. Life is not a series of isolated ponds and puddles; life is this river you see, flows from the past through the present on its way to the future.
On top of his remembering his past, Dominick got hold of his grandfather’s memoir in Italian before his mother died to help him find some answers about his family. The memoir disappeared for several years along with the translator. He reunited with the translator and the memoir while stranded in a hospital bed after falling off the roof while trying to paint the roof (Dominick is a house painter) and was shocked when the customer blow himself out with the gun. Dominick broke his leg from the fall and lo and behold, the man who sleeps next to his hospital bed was the husband of his runaway translator, and his grandfather’s memoir was delivered to him on a big thud on his broken leg. (How weird!)
To save himself, Dominick must face the pain of his past and the dark secrets he has locked within himself. He will have to search for the courage to forgive, and finally to rebuild himself beyond the haunted shadow of his twin and his horrific past. He read his grandfather’s memoir hoping to uncover a clue about who is his real, biological father. Dominick’s maternal grandfather, Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, was a self-aggrandising money pincher, priest hopeful turned builder. Migrating from Sicily to America, his memoir documented his tribulations of his worthless brothers Vincenzo (a womaniser) and Pasquale (Pet monkey-lover, who kill himself when his monkey died) and his marriage and family problems.
The best part is the ending. Since no one is compel to read this decade old, 897-pages long novel, I’m going to disclose how the story end anyway. 🙂 Dominick and Dessa got back together, adopted Joy’s daughter Tyfannie after Joy died from AIDS (another significant history in the mid-90’s, on top of the first gulf war). Thomas killed himself. Dominick found out that the crazy woman, Prosperine (who accompanied Domenico’s wife) that his grandfather hate most, is still alive, and his biological father is Henry Drinkwater who died in the war. Ralph is his cousin and half of Dominick’s lineage is Italian the other half is actually Wequonnocs North American native. Ever since the developer decided to build a casino on the Wequonnocs’s land, all Wequonnocs are compensated and became millionaires.
The underlying message of the book is that: Life is not a series of isolated ponds and puddles; life is this river you see, flows from the past through the present on its way to the future. All incidents that appear to be in isolation, shares a common thread that bind us all and that we all are linked to one another, in the most mystical ways……
From anger through confusion to resolution, Dominick’s journey was heart wrenching. Despite the book’s flaws, the pages flew by easily. Much easier read than Shantaram. The book made it to the Oprah Book Club and I can see why. A story about self discovery and reflection through the protagonist’s past and his grandfather’s past, the psychological changes that happened in Dominick was both intriguing and profound, Lamb handles this part of the story very well. My Verdict: 4/5
What I like about the book: the conversation between Dominick and shrink Dr. Patel. The story of the twins’ childhood. The ending of the book. A book about American history, about the psychological impact of growing up with a twin, about mental illness, about grief of losing a child, about finding your roots, about nature and nurture, anti-war sentiments, about cause and effect, about love and forgiveness. Look at it anyway, this book is multi-facet. Although frivolous on some parts, the underlying message is deep.
What I hate about the book: Domenico’s memoir, feels like rambling of a senile old man. Some part of the book is lewd and perverted.
About the writer:
Wally Lamb (born 17 October 1950) is an award-winning American author, well known as the writer of several novels that have appeared on Oprah’s Book Club. He was the director of the Writing Center at Norwich Free Academy, Norwich, Connecticut from 1989-1998, and is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Connecticut’s English Department. He holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Education from the University of Connecticut and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College. Lamb lives in Mansfield, Connecticut with his wife and three sons. More about this book see: This Much I Know is True