I think that, normally, a more-than-900-page book would scare me half to death. Committing to a book that long is like taking out a mortgage or planning a pregnancy. But right from the first page of Wally Lamb’s I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, I realized I was going to be in it for the long haul.
I also knew that I would not lend this book to anyone and, because the story was so rich and full, I would be rereading this book for the rest of my life. Of course, as soon as I’d finished reading it for the first time, I was desperate to discuss it with my friends (it was the days before ubiquity of the Internet) and ended up lending it and then buying several more copies over the years—I currently have two copies on my bookshelves.
I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE is a family saga detailing the life of Dominick Birdsey and his relationships with his disturbed twin brother, disappointed ex-wife, unstable girlfriend, and terrible stepfather all while dealing with his grief over losing his child and his mother. Dominick also uncovers the biography of his Italian grandfather, which lays bare the wounds that have been carried from one generation to the next.
I learned so much about the craft of writing from this book. The lessons came thick and fast. I saw that if I was ever going to start writing a book, I needed an impactful opening. Within the first few pages of I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, we find out that our imperfect protagonist’s twin brother, Thomas, has chopped off his own arm in the local library. Boom! What a fantastic start.
Every character in this book has a complex backstory; all could have books based on their lives, too. Wally Lamb is not afraid to give his characters deep flaws, which makes for delicious reading. We know these guys. Hell, we are these guys. Which is why I emotionally connected to so many of these characters, and why I am rooting for Dominick Birdsey despite all his imperfections. By the end of the book, the author has won our sympathy for even the most despicable members of his cast, as we feel we have lived our lives with them. Wally Lamb ultimately gives us a greater understanding of the human condition.
I don’t know how Lamb managed to keep the plot twisting and turning for all of those 900 pages, but it was a masterful exercise in plate spinning. Every couple of pages, there was an incident, a revelation, something to make me gasp and turn the pages faster.
When I sat down to write my first novel, my husband said, “Write something like I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE,” as if it were that easy. But all the time I was writing UNRAVELING OLIVER, and then LYING IN WAIT, this was the book at the back of my mind that demonstrated so cleverly how to surprise the reader and, I suspect, the writer.
The book is winking at me right now from the shelf above my head. It is demanding to be read again. I’m not hesitating.
Dominick and Thomas are identical in every respect except one: Thomas suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. After Thomas cuts off his own hand in what he believes to be an act of sacrificial protest, Dominick must review his own status as the “normal” twin and confront the dark and suppressed truths of his own life in this tale of alienation, connection, and, above all, the power of familial bonds.