Wally Lamb’s SHE’S COME UNDONE can be presented with many classifiers. It’s a debut, a coming-of-age story, a novel about mothers and daughters, an exploration into contemporary American anxieties, and a 1996 Oprah’s Book Club pick.
Lamb’s eponymous character, Delores Price, should be labelled as hungry—for love, for food, for distraction. We meet her at age 4 switching on the family’s television for the first time, entranced by the seemingly perfect images in front of her. Her early childhood in front of the screen trains Delores to also devour the real-life fantasies around her: the illusion of a loving father who then walks out, her mother’s debilitating depression, the upstairs neighbor whose sinister attention leaves teenaged Delores with years of shame and disgust.
Mitigating her unhappy childhood with years of overeating and hours of television, Delores grows in size while shrinking any sense of self and individuality. When Delores finally pursues her mother’s unfulfilled dream of attending college, she hopes it’s a chance to have the blissful student existence that her mother always dreamed for her.
Yet her years of obsessive habits lead to an inevitable overcompensation and fantastical indulgence as Delores constructs an elaborate false identity when writing to her soon-to-be college roommate the summer before they meet. This disastrous fabrication is the first of many attempts to be an idealized version of herself in order to fit into someone else’s life. With manic hilarity and raw agony, Delores lies to herself, builds and destroys different identities, and eventually becomes “undone” in the process.
Delores is a joy to read. In her, Wally Lamb has created a character with a witty and dark sense of humor, complicated depths of personality, an exhaustive well of love—while honing in on the heart of all great coming-of-age stories. Through all Delores’s tragedies, fictions, and soul-searching, you as a reader may begin to wonder exactly how—and who—you are, and came to be.
Too often, novels described as coming-of-age solely illustrate adolescence, as if one comes of age and exists in final form at 21. In SHE’S COME UNDONE, Wally Lamb presents a lifetime’s kaleidoscope of emotions and struggles, revealing that sometimes we need to lose everything we ever knew about ourselves in order to, finally, accept who we were all along.
Elizabeth Breeden works in the marketing department at Simon & Schuster. Follow her on Twitter @eliz_breeden