It takes an author with an exceedingly delicate touch to craft a heartwarming story of resilience and transformation peppered with such brutal and depressing topics as rape, childhood alienation, abusive relationships, and mental illness – yet this is exactly what Wally Lamb achieves with his debut work.
His book, which has received international praise, follows the life of Dolores Price from the age of four to forty. By the second grade, she has her first experience with family tragedy as her mother has a miscarriage that is to be her unraveling; her father leaves the family for another woman soon after, and Dolores must leave to live with her tight-lipped grandmother as her mother plunges deep into mental illness. It is events like these – thrust onto Dolores at such a young age – that begin to shape her personality as she grows into an increasingly combative and discontented child.
While it would have been easy to make the angry young Dolores unlikable, Lamb allows the reader to see beyond her prickly exterior and view her with compassion. He reveals the guilt that surrounds her rape as well as the anger; she experiences confusion and self-blame for the innocent, childish desire she had for her neighbor before he raped her, and is deeply affected by his claims that they “did what [they] did together.” When her attacker’s wife miscarries shortly afterwards, she is haunted by the connection she draws between the two and blames herself for the baby’s death.
With her rape comes not only emotional but physical transformation; she shuts herself away from the world by gluing herself to the television set and eats so excessively that she weighs 257 pounds by the time she has graduated high school. Her mother – racked with guilt at her own connection to Dolores’ attacker, with whom she was having an affair at the time – enables this behavior, buying Dolores her own television and supplying her with the unhealthy foods that she eats. Dolores’ coping mechanisms only seem to further alienate her from the world, where she is mocked and despised for her weight by most.
Though she uses her own brand of caustic humor to keep those around her at bay, Dolores also has clear moments of yearning for the approval and friendship of these people, and it becomes apparent that her humor is really a defense mechanism. The humor in this sense has two purposes, as Lamb also uses it to navigate the book’s many difficult subjects without allowing the novel to take an overwhelmingly depressed or pitying tone.
From Dolores’ graduation, Lamb takes readers on a tumultuous journey leading up to her adulthood, during which she tragically loses her mother, briefly attends college, is committed to a mental institution, and eventually strikes out to build a new life for herself. Though her life is filled with trauma and catastrophe, Lamb manages to sustain the reader’s hope for Dolores. Her passage into womanhood and her triumphs (big and small) over those who seek to take away her personal power are satisfying and hard-won, and will have readers grinning.
Lamb writes so compassionately and accurately about the trials of adolescent womanhood and the complex relationship between a mother and her daughter that I found it hard to believe that he had never personally experienced either of these things. It is his honest yet tender treatment of these kinds of experiences and his ability to create believable, complex characters – refusing to downplay their flaws and failings – that have made Wally Lamb one of my favourite modern authors.