Sometimes a book's opening line tells you everything you need to know and sucks you into the inevitable-but-somehow-surprising story that will follow. "Mine is a story of craving: an unreliable account of lusts and troubles that began, somehow, in 1956 on the day our free television was delivered" is just that kind of line. Who cares that it's not the absolute first sentence of Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone (it appears a few pages into the first chapter); to me, it signaled that something life-changing was about to happen.
There are a couple of books that I attach to very specific moments and forever hold dear because of their associations. The World According to Garp is one of them, because when I read it--as I was graduating from college--I was (and remain) fascinated by the idea that you don't have to be "normal" to be loved. Earlier back there was a novel called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I don't even remember all that well anymore, except for a scene in which Francie, the young heroine, goes to her late father's barber shop to fetch his one possession (a shaving mug), and for the vague recollection that Francie was rescued from poverty and misery through the love of reading. And more recently, Philip Roth's Patrimony, which was not the most successful of this great American novelist's books--besides, it's a memoir--stays with me because of its indelible portrait of his father, who reminds me so much of special people I have known. She's Come Undone joins that pantheon. That the lonely, secret yearnings of a young, obese, abused misfit could make me both relate to her and want to protect her--that seemed miraculous. "Mine is a story of craving." Isn't everyone's?
I'm hardly alone in my commitment to this book. It was one of the first novels chosen in the original incarnation of Oprah's Book Club, it was atop all best-sellers lists for many weeks, and it has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Last month, it hit another milestone: after 20 years it is still in print, just re-released with the same design as the original paperback and with a new introduction. Once a high school teacher, Lamb still teaches, but now his students are women incarcerated in a local prison; in the past twenty years, he has published two books of their writings (I'll Fly Away and Couldn't Keep It to Myself) as well as several other books, one of which--I Know This Much Is True--was also an Oprah's Book Club pick and a huge best seller. But the story of Delores Price--who began life in a short story as "Mary Ann" and became "Dolores" when Lamb, preparing a vocabulary list for his students, looked up the word "dolorous" in the dictionary--seems dearest to his, and readers', hearts. Lamb keeps his fan mail (my words, not his) in three big plastic tubs in his northern Connecticut office and says that more of the letters refer to his first novel than anything else.
Trying to plan which characters will touch readers is probably an impossible task (I would never have predicted, for example, that I'd fall for backpacking, hiking Cheryl Strayed in Wild), and asking writers how they invented their characters is often unsatisfying. Still, Lamb is very clear on where Dolores came from: a combination of an unhappy student he tried to jolly along in English class; a voice in his head; and--don't laugh--a Greek god. As he writes in his introduction to the new edition, "You will not find a character more unlike bold and valiant Odysseus than inhibited, caustic Dolores Price," he writes. "And yet, they take parallel journeys."
Readers have asked Lamb why he didn't kill Dolores off at the end of the book, which would, after all, fit with the fate of the mythical hero. But to me, that suggestion suggests a lack of feeling for the ethos of a book that is all about redemption. Instead, Lamb and his fans have kept Dolores alive lo, these many years, and she's so real to so many people, including Lamb, that they talk about her as if she were right in front of them. He calls her his "fictional daughter," and he sometimes waves to her in bookstores, he says. You and I can go a little further and once again bring her down off the dusty shelf.