This is the story of Caelum Quirk — a middle-aged teacher who is trying to come to terms with his present, his past and his troubled marriage. Married to Maureen (his third wife), Caelum’s story begins with his troubles handling Maureen’s infidelity. In an attempt to save their marriage, they leave their home in Connecticut and move to Littleton Colorado, where they work at Columbine High School. (Yes…that Columbine High School. Maureen is the school nurse and Caelum is an English teacher.) The move seems to help the marriage somewhat, but Caelum and Maureen still have moments of distance between them. Then Caelum’s beloved aunt — and his only link to his family — suffers a stroke and Caelum returns to Connecticut to say goodbye. While in Connecticut, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold go on their well-publicized rampage in the high school.
Panicked and unable to reach Maureen, Caelum returns in a panic to Littleton. He finally locates her, but she is a shell of her former self. Trapped in the library during the shootings, Maureen is unable to cope with the fact that she has survived. Maureen begins to unravel. Attempting to help Maureen deal with her post-traumatic stress disorder, Caelum moves them back to his aunt’s house in Connecticut. There, Maureen continues to deteriorate while Caelum struggles to keep them financially afloat. During this time, Caelum discovers a secret family history that casts a new light on everything he thought was true about his family.
You may be thinking “Wow, just go tell us the whole story, why don’t you?” Believe me when I tell you that I just gave you the bare bones plot. There is A LOT going on in this book, which I think is ultimately its fatal flaw.
Don’t get me wrong. Wally Lamb is a fantastic writer, and I didn’t once consider not finishing this book. However, there is so much going on that I felt that the novel suffered. There are long sections of the book devoted to Caelum’s ancestor, Lillian Popper, and her experiences during the Civil War era. (These sections are either provided as diary entries or as excerpts from a “thesis” written by one of the characters.) There is a lengthy “transcript” from when Caelum interviews an older gentleman about the history of a cigarette company. There are subplots about Iraq war veterans, Hurricane Katrina victims, a prison, a family unable to accept their favored son’s homosexuality, and Caelum’s best friend’s search for love and the perfect car. In short, there is material enough in this book for about three novels, but Lamb packs it all into one. Ultimately, I think this was a mistake. If Lamb wanted to write about Lillian Popper’s life in such depth, perhaps he should have made this a separate novel.
I also have an issue with some of the amazing coincidences that Lamb contrives for his characters. Isn’t it just a little too convenient that the Hurricane Katrina victims he offers shelter to include a women’s studies graduate student that pulls together the convoluted story of Caelum’s family? And during one point, so much stuff happens at the same time that I just threw up my hands in disbelief.
But...there is no getting around the fact that Wally Lamb is a gifted writer. In the case of this book, I felt like he just had too much to say and crammed it all together into one book. I felt it would have been enough to focus on Caelum and Maureen’s marriage and their post-Columbine experiences. I think if the author had pulled out three of the different story threads (the Columbine story, the Lillian Popper story, the Iraq war veteran story), he could have had three distinct and more focused novels. As it is, you get it all in one big, sprawling book, and none of the stories get the attention and focus they deserve.
My Final Recommendation
Ultimately, I cannot give this book a no-holds-barred recommendation. I wish I could have liked this book more because the writing itself is darn good, and I love how Lamb incorporates all the little details that squarely places his story in the time in which it was happening. But I really do think the book is flawed because of its sprawl and disjointed plot. Here’s wishing Mr. Lamb’s next book is a little more focused.
To find other reviews about this book, go on over to the handy dandy Book Blog Search Engine, created by Fyrefly’s Book Blog. This is a wonderful tool I just came across and plan to incorporate it into this blog more often. It searches more than 850 book blogs!