Wally Lamb's novel I Know This Much Is True is his second wildly successful novel. The book owes its success to many of the same factors that rendered his first novel, She's Come Undone a popular bestseller. The reviews for both books pointed again and again to his ability to develop his characters in a moving, realistic fashion. However, I Know This Much Is True differs from She's Come Undone in significant ways; the protagonist of his second book is a male, unlike the heroine of She's Come Undone, proving to audiences and critics that Lamb can assume almost any voice as he explores the psyches of his characters- whether they be depressed, schizophrenic, obese females, or bitter "untwinned" males. The most consistently discussed aspect in reviews of I Know This Much Is True is its hefty length, as well as the numerous issues that it takes on. The length of the novel also generated the most controversy between praise and criticism, but ultimately the novel was extremely well received and praised by book critics. In determining what makes I Know This Much Is True a bestseller, we must take into account aspects of the book itself- the style in which it is written, the character development, and the issues it addresses- as well as outside influences such as marketing techniques, Lamb's public persona, and the political and cultural controversies that were relevant in 1998 when the book was published. All of these factors come together beautifully in terms of generating a best-selling novel, and for these reasons Lamb's I Know This Much Is True was and is a highly successful and appreciated novel.
There is much to be said for Wally Lamb's style of writing; in both She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True Lamb writes in captivating prose that draws his audience in and keeps them turning pages. I Know This Much Is True's plot is driven by continuous action, so that the 900 page novel is daunting but utterly engaging. Lamb's tale of one man's struggles with his schizophrenic twin is told in an engaging fashion "as if the reader were perched on the next bar stool" (LA Times). The diction that Lamb uses is not intimidating, but rather extremely colloquial so that the reader becomes involved in the story. Although Lamb's tendency to overstate his point can be a bit patronizing, he is careful never to alienate his reader with lofty or elevated prose. As a result, "this isn't escapist fiction; it's better, drawing the reader into a convoluted web of twins, fatherhood, love and mental instability, and then demanding emotional involvement" (www.rambles.net). Lamb delves into some serious issues in his book- "the list includes cross-dressing, child pornography, rape, incest, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, substance abuse, a secret vasectomy, an unidentified biological father, a bodacious aerobics teacher, an Indian casino, murder, suicide, and a plunge from three stories high"(cnn.com review)- but the manner in which he explores these issues is never overly-didactic, allowing the reader to feel like he or she is exploring these issues with Lamb, rather than listening to some sort of sermon. Lamb's inclusion of these issues ensures that his audience will not feel that they are reading 900 pages of "fluff," or a 900-page airplane novel. Instead, the subject matter of the novel makes this hefty novel a worthwhile undertaking. Another key stylistic feature of Lamb's writing is his employment, in some sense, of stock characters (as noted in the Austin Chronicle). These stock characters (the mean step-parent, the cheating girlfriend, the goofy best friend, etc.) expose readers to aspects of story telling that crop up in all kinds of literature, and readers are attracted, psychologically, to that which is familiar to them. At the same time, Lamb is careful to give his characters substance, so that we're not reading a 900-page character sketch. Finally, Lamb includes the story of the twins' grandfather in a two hundred page memoir, making I Know This Much Is True a multi-generational saga and lending a cyclical feel to the novel. Lamb takes every measure to put his reader at ease with the novel; the intimidating size and scope of the novel are balanced with the colloquial and familiar stylistic features Lamb employs.
The marketing strategies for I Know This Much Is True are unique in that both of Lamb's novels were chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. The influence of Oprah on books is phenomenal; every book she chooses becomes a bestseller. While the demographic is largely female for this book club, Lamb's novel is different from most other books on the list in that it tells the story of male twins. This did not deter readership by Oprah's fans, however, and the book became wildly successful. I Know This Much Is True was the second of Lamb's books to be nominated for Oprah's book club, and he was the first author to actually appear on the show the same day that Oprah announced his book as her number seventeen pick. It is interesting to examine the ways in which books are selected for this book club, and the subsequent influence the book club has on sales and printings. According to an article in USA Today detailing the selection process, Winfrey alerted Lamb and his publisher that the book had been chosen, swearing them both to secrecy. In the case of She's Come Undone, 750,000 paperbacks of the book were then published, and "booksellers [were] offered the mysterious (but effective) Untitled Oprah's Book Club #4. Three quarters of a million copies [were] sold sight unseen." The books were then shipped to bookstores everywhere, placed on bestsellers lists and shelved with other "Oprah's Picks." A special sticker signifying Oprah's approval is also slapped onto the book's cover, assuring reading audiences everywhere that this large novel is worthy of their time. Sources agree that while the book deserves its success for its masterful writing, Oprah's hand in the matter certainly gave Lamb a huge push towards success.
Wally Lamb's public persona very likely contributes to the success of his two novels. In general, he comes across as a very likable guy in interviews and public appearances. His image is not that of an extremely scholarly, unapproachable man; rather, he seems like a regular type of guy- like he could be your next-door neighbor, perhaps. Lamb's writing style mirrors this idea of a personable, sensitive man. His career as a high school teacher supports this image, and Oprah emphasized this when she filmed him with one of his high school classes before announcing his book as her latest pick for the book club (USA Today). He's a family man, with a wife and children, living in Connecticut (the same state in which he was raised). This is particularly appealing to the female demographic that Oprah's book club draws. His success also encourages the idea that it's never too late in life to find your calling (and become a bestseller novelist). That is, it wasn't until middle age (and twenty five years of teaching) that Lamb set aside his teaching career and began to write novels. On November 2, 2001, in an address to the National Council on the Arts Lamb states "I became a high school English teacher. And then a father. And, then at the age of 30, a fiction writer." The fact that his first two novels have been so popular is a heartwarming success story in many ways. Lamb's public persona is also positively affected by the ways in which he researches and contributes to the cause of the prominent subject matter in both of his books. He tends to focus on mental illnesses and healing processes in his books, and it is thus appropriate that he donates money to foundations benefitting the mentally ill. In the address to the National Council on the Arts Lamb announced, "My wife and I designate 10% of my book earnings to organizations that help the mentally ill, the victims of domestic violence, and the arts." The public knowledge that Lamb is making efforts to contribute to the solution of the issues that he raises in his books encourages readers to help his cause by buying his books; and if it isn't the prime reason a reader carries his books to the cash register at Barnes and Noble, it still earns Lamb some well-deserved respect. In case readers miss out on the fact that Lamb contributes to foundations for the mentally ill, he includes the following statement on the last page of I Know This Much Is True:
"Readers wishing to learn more about or to assist people with
Schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses may contact or make
charitable contributions to: The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill?"
Lamb's public persona certainly adds to the popularity of his books; it's hard to criticize Lamb for choosing subjects that he doesn't know about (obese, depressed females, schizophrenic twins, etc.) when he publicly does so much research and contributes a portion of his earnings to a charitable cause.
Political and Cultural Relevance
A large part of the success of I Know This Much Is True can be attributed to the condition of society at the time the book was published in 1998. Politically, the book deals with the controversy surrounding war- specifically, the United States' involvement in the Gulf War. Thomas Birdsey, Dominick's schizophrenic twin, amputates his hand in an extremely charged moment of protest against the war. There is a detailed description of the night Dominick and Thomas receive their draft numbers, which is a very tense portion of the book. Dominick spends much of the book ruminating over the senselessness of war, and in choosing the Gulf War as the political backdrop to his novel, Lamb chooses an issue that resonates strongly with readers in the late twentieth century. The Gulf War is recent enough (early 1990's) regarding when the book was published that readers again encounter a sense of familiarity; they are likely to have their own opinions on the war, making the subject interesting regardless of whether audiences agree with Dominick's (or Lamb's?) take on the war. Culturally, the late 90's are known as an era of psychology; it is suddenly acceptable and even glamorous in some circumstances to be in therapy. Thus, the extensive forays into psychology and the workings of the mind also resonate strongly with Lamb's audience. This book is a bildungsroman of sorts, in that we follow Dominick through his childhood and adult years as he struggles to recover his identity and individuality. Lamb employs the character of the "wise Buddhist shrink" to delve into these issues in an entertaining and revealing fashion (Austin Chronicle). Lamb alludes to respected psychologists- such as Freud and Bettleheim to name just two- to show us that he's done his homework on the subject. Finally, as mentioned above, Lamb delves into issues that are especially pertinent to our society in the late 1990's: war, divorce, mental illness, suicide, affairs, SIDS, abuse, racism, etc. In combining all of these aspects of our culture in the late twentieth century- the consequences of war, psychological issues, and pressing social issues- and revealing these issues through the double (and extreme opposite) vision of twin brothers, Lamb gives his reading audience a broad and all-encompassing perspective on our world at the turn of the century.
The success of Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True cannot be attributed to any one factor; certainly aspects of this book contributed to its success more than others, but ultimately we must look at the convergence of Lamb's masterful style, the marketing techniques, his public persona, and the cultural and political relevance of the novel as active components in producing a best-selling novel. Lamb addresses important issues - be they political or emotional- in a style that engages and moves his audience. Oprah's support of the novel certainly had a huge hand in its success, as she espoused the merit of the book and emphasized the way in which Lamb's personal persona- that of a genuine, sensitive man- mirrors his honest and relaxed writing style. All of these components have come together to put Lamb's I Know This Much Is True on best-selling lists, and in all likelihood Oprah won't be the only one to recommend this book for years to come.
http://europe/cnn.com/books/reviews/9808/13/this.much.true.cnn/index.html August 13,1998.
Korelitz, Jean Hanff. Los Angeles Times, Home Edition, Book Review, p.14. July 12, 1998.