If You've Never Read Anything By Wally Lamb, Here's The Book You Should Start With

In 1981, Wally Lamb was working as a high school English teacher in Connecticut when he started writing fiction. "I didn't really have a lonely childhood so much as I had a solitary childhood, but when you're cast in the role of the observer as a kid, if you're going to become a fiction writer, that's probably not a bad thing to have happen," he told the CT Examiner.

According to the author's website, since turning his attention to fiction, all six of his novels have landed on The New York Times best-seller lists. There have been long stretches of time — sometimes many years — between the publication of his books. "I'm a pokey writer and, during bad writing stretches, a procrastinator," Lamb admitted to Writer's Bone.

But, early in his novel-writing career, Lamb was lucky enough to have a fairy godmother of sorts: a certain former talk-show host with a talent for magically turning books into best-sellers.

She's Come Undone was Wally Lamb's first novel

"She's Come Undone" came out 1992, but it wasn't until four years later that most people heard about it, thanks to Oprah Winfrey. She chose Wally Lamb's debut novel for her book club in December 1996. He described to Publishers Weekly the phone call he received: "This is Oprah Winfrey calling. You owe me two nights sleep because I couldn't put your book down."

Oprah.com said the book "makes us laugh and wince with recognition and reminds us that despite the pain we endure and cause, we must find the courage to love again." The Publishers Weekly review described "She's Come Undone" as an "engaging first novel" about a lonely, alienated woman who survives a "relentless parade of disasters," but the review also listed the many clichés plaguing the book's ending.

Clichés notwithstanding, readers loved the book. More than 3 million copies flew off store shelves (per The New York Times). Lamb told USA Today about an encounter with a reader at a book signing who claimed to be his biggest fan — when he asked her to prove it, she revealed a tattoo of the cover of "She's Come Undone."

I Know This Much Is True is the author's best book

Wally Lamb struck gold a second time when Oprah's Book Club also featured his follow-up novel, "I Know This Much Is True," in June 1998. "I couldn't believe that lightning had struck twice," he told Publishers Weekly. The book hit The New York Times best-seller list and landed at No. 11 on the Publishers Weekly list of best-sellers for 1998.

The novel focuses on narrator Dominick and his identical twin, Thomas, who has paranoid schizophrenia — and publicly slices off his own hand in the opening scene. 

"The topics it unflinchingly explores — mental illness, dysfunctional families, domestic abuse — are rendered with unsparing candor," said the Publishers Weekly review. "But thanks to well-sustained dramatic tension, funky gallows humor, and some shocking surprises, this sinuous story of one family's dark secrets and recurring patterns of behavior largely succeeds in its ambitious reach." 

The review also warned that the novel is "a hefty read," stretching on for more than 900 pages.

In 2020, HBO adapted "I Know This Much Is True" into a six-episode miniseries starring Mark Ruffalo (per IMDb). The actor's portrayal of both twin brothers earned Ruffalo his first Golden Globe Award — along with effusive praise from Lamb himself (per the CT Examiner).

Wally Lamb's other books

Anyone who reads Wally Lamb's first two books will no doubt be inspired to seek out more. His other novels include "The Hour I First Believed," "We Are Water," and "I'll Take You There." He also penned the comic novella "Wishin' and Hopin': A Christmas Story," which was turned into one of the best Lifetime Christmas movies ever made, per IMDb. (Keep an eye out for Lamb's cameo as a janitor.)

Lamb knows how lucky he's been in his career, especially his good fortune to be anointed by Oprah Winfrey twice. "I like to think of it as I had two rides on the roller coaster and then I came back and I was scratching my head. There are so many writers that are good or way better than I am so why did this happen to me? I could never figure out why," he told the CT Examiner. "I began to think about what I could do to give back."

His way of giving back was to start teaching a writing workshop at a women's prison in Connecticut. "I've never been involved with writers who have been so enthusiastic and involved in creating and revising their work. I didn't know that the women would give me more of an education than I was giving them," he told Publishers Weekly. He went on to edit two collections of their essays: "Couldn't Keep It to Myself" and "I'll Fly Away."