Summary and book reviews of I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb

I Know This Much Is True

by Wally Lamb

I Know This Much Is True
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  • First Published:
    Jun 1998, 901 pages
    Apr 1999, 901 pages

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Book Summary

A heartbreaking and poignant multigenerational saga of the reproductive bonds of destruction and the powerful force of forgiveness.

With his stunning debut novel, She's Come Undone, Wally Lamb won the adulation of critics and readers with his mesmerizing tale of one woman's painful yet triumphant journey of self-discovery. Now, this brilliantly talented writer returns with I Know This Much is True, a heartbreaking and poignant multigenerational saga of the reproductive bonds of destruction and the powerful force of forgiveness. A masterpiece that breathtakingly tells a story of alienation and connection, power and abuse, devastation and renewal.

Dominick Birdsey's entire life has been compromised and constricted by anger and fear, by the paranoid schizophrenic twin brother he both deeply loves and resents, and by the past they shared with their adoptive father, Ray, a split-and-polish ex-Navy man (the five-foot-six-inch sleeping giant who snoozed upstairs weekdays in the spare room and built submarines at night), and their long-suffering mother, Concettina, a timid woman with a harelip that made her shy and self-conscious: She holds a loose fist to her face to cover her defective mouth--her perpetual apology to the world for a birth defect over which she'd had no control.

Born in the waning moments of 1949 and the opening minutes of 1950, the twins are physical mirror images who grow into separate yet connected entities: the seemingly strong and protective yet fearful Dominick, his mother's watchful "monkey"; and the seemingly weak and sweet yet noble Thomas, his mother's gentle "bunny." From childhood, Dominick fights for both separation and wholeness--and ultimately self-protection--in a house of fear dominated by Ray, a bully who abuses his power over these stepsons whose biological father is a mystery. I was still afraid of his anger but saw how he punished weakness--pounced on it. Out of self-preservation I hid my fear, Dominick confesses. As for Thomas, he just never knew how to play defense. He just didn't get it.

But Dominick's talent for survival comes at an enormous cost, including the breakup of his marriage to the warm, beautiful Dessa, whom he still loves. And it will be put to the ultimate test when Thomas, a Bible-spouting zealot, commits an unthinkable act that threatens the tenuous balance of both his and Dominick's lives.

To save himself, Dominick must confront not only the pain of his past but the dark secrets he has locked deep within himself, and the sins of his ancestors--a quest that will lead him beyond the confines of his blue-collar New England town to the volcanic foothills of Sicily 's Mount Etna, where his ambitious and vengefully proud grandfather and a namesake Domenico Tempesta, the sostegno del famiglia, was born. Each of the stories Ma told us about Papa reinforced the message that he was the boss, that he ruled the roost, that what he said went. Searching for answers, Dominick turns to the whispers of the dead, to the pages of his grandfather's handwritten memoir, The History of Domenico Onofrio Tempesta, a Great Man from Humble Beginnings.

Rendered with touches of magic realism, Domenico's fablelike tale--in which monkeys enchant and religious statues weep--becomes the old man's confessione--an unwitting legacy of contrition that reveals the truth's of Domenico's life, Dominick leans that power, wrongly used, defeats the oppressor as well as the oppressed, and now, picking through the humble shards of his deconstructed life, he will search for the courage and love to forgive, to expiate his and his ancestors' transgressions, and finally to rebuild himself beyond the haunted shadow of his twin.

Set against the vivid panoply of twentieth-century America and filled with richly drawn, memorable characters, this deeply moving and thoroughly satisfying novel brings to light humanity's deepest needs and fears, our aloneness, our desire for love and acceptance, our struggle to survive at all costs. Joyous, mystical, and exquisitely written, I Know This Much is True is an extraordinary reading experience that will leave no reader untouched.

One Saturday morning when my brother and I were ten, our family television set spontaneously combusted.

Thomas and I had spent most of that morning lolling around in our pajamas, watching cartoons and ignoring our mother's orders to go upstairs, take our baths, and put on our dungarees. We were supposed to help her outside with the window washing. Whenever Ray gave an order, my brother and I snapped to attention, but our stepfather was duck hunting that weekend with his friend Eddie Banas. Obeying Ma was optional.

She was outside looking in when it happened--standing in the geranium bed on a stool so she could reach the parlor windows. Her hair was in pincurls. Her coat pockets were stuffed with paper towels. As she Windexed and wiped the glass, her circular strokes gave the illusion that she was waving in at us. "We better get out there and help," Thomas said. "What if she tells Ray?"

"She won't tell," I said. "She never tells."

It was true. However angry we could make our...

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Plot Summary:

Wally Lamb's first novel, She's Come Undone, received rave reviews when it was published in 1992. The book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Awards' Art Seidenbaum Prize for First Fiction and was named as one of the most notable books of the year by numerous publications, including The New York Times Book Review and People magazine. A graduate of the Vermont College MFA in Writing program, Lamb currently teaches at the University of Connecticut. He is the recipient of an NEA grant for fiction and a Missouri Review William Peden fiction prize winner. A nationally honored teacher of writing, he lives in Connecticut with his wife and their three sons.

"Reading a novel is a highly personal experience ...
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Media Reviews


A gratifying saga of loss and redemption.

The New York Times Books Review

... it never grapples with anything less than life's biggest questions.... Lamb clearly aims to be a modern-day Dostoyevsky with a pop sensibility.

Dallas Morning News

Wally Lamb is one of those rare contemporary writers who can produce a 900-page book that defies readers to put it down...stunning...powerful...The book is so effectively structured that the reader can easily fall into its pages, becoming a part of it, in the way that a powerful play lures its audience into its setting and story line...A rich literary tapestry that is an affirmation of life.

Denver Post

A can't-put-it-down-novel...packed with graceful writing, unrelenting dramatic tension and characters how force the reader to form an emotional bond with them...The only thing bad about Wally Lamb's new novel is that it's too good.

Oakland Press

The saga of the century. Best, most wonderful, most dramatic, most powerful. There are no superlatives impressive enough to describe this, another Lamb masterpiece.

USA Today

Twice as thoughtful and twice as heart-wrenching as most published this year. An exercise in soul-baring storytelling--with the soul belonging to 20th-century America itself. It's hard to read and to stop reading, and impossible to forget.

Publishers Weekly

...a fully developed and triumphantly resolved exploration of one man's suffering and redemption.

The Associated Press

Every now and then a book comes along that sets new standards for writers and readers alike. Wally Lamb's latest novel is stunning--and even that might be an understatement...this is a masterpiece.

Reader Reviews


I Know This Much is True
Rarely does a book take me on a voyage of self discovery, and this book definitely has. I could never really identify emotions and feelings in my own life until I read this book and then many questions about myself were answered. A definite must in ...   Read More


Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True
About two months ago, in a meeting of the Literary Group, I held out my opinion that tellers of stories wrote best when they had lived the life they were writing about. I cited Sinclair Lewis as the prime example. It is a firm belief I have held ...   Read More

Bernard Colgan

Must Read.
This is one of those books that you come across every now and again and you bore people about how and why they should read it. The book just drags you into Dominicks world and I'm sure you will identify some aspects of it with your everyday life. ...   Read More


Full circle
While at a local Goodwill, looking for a book to read at work, I spotted Wally Lamb's "I Know This Much Is True". I had never heard of Mr Lamb, never seen or read anything he has ever done, yet somehow this book ended up in my hands. It ...   Read More

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