Written by Bonnie Nadzam and Narrated by Tavia Gilbert
Reason for Reading: This was long-listed for the Prize Formerly Known as Orange.
Lamb hits a mid-life crisis when his wife divorces him for infidelity and his father passes away. Just after his father’s funeral, he meets Tommie – an 11-year-old girl who desperately needs guidance. Lamb is strangely attracted to the girl – he wants to help her seize life, he wants to buy her presents and make her happy. Then, with Tommie’s consent, he abducts her.
I had a really hard time deciding how to rate Lamb. The narrative was intriguing – almost addictive – but the subject matter was very disturbing. I had a hard time putting it down because I wanted to know how it would end. I felt compelled to keep reading despite a deepening sense of unease. From the subject, I should have known it would make me feel that way, but I thought it would be a book with more hope in it. I respect the way Nadzam kept the details subtle. There were no highly disturbing scenes (well, there was ONE scene that was a bit disturbing, but it could have been much, much worse). My recommendation – read this book if you would enjoy looking at pedophilia from another perspective, but avoid it if this is a sensitive topic for you.
Before deciding how to rate the book, I took a look at what other people had said about it. There are, predictably, people who loved the book and people who hated it. In the interest of proving to myself that I’m not narrow-minded, I want to have a spoilerish discussion to address some issues that came up in the positive reviews.
First of all, one review pointed out that it was unclear who the narrator of this book was. To me, it seemed that the book was in the third person subjective, focusing on Lamb. There were a few scenes where it seemed to be from the POV of Tommie, but even that could have been in Lamb’s head. So that’s how I’m interpreting the book – our narrator is telling us what Lamb is thinking, and sometimes Lamb thinks about what Tommie is thinking, and sometimes he thinks about what might be happening back in Chicago as Tommie’s parents look for her, but we’re always inside Lamb’s head. That is very important for how I interpreted the book.
Another thing that affects the way I perceive Lamb – I despised him from the beginning. Even before he abducted Tommie. Even when his intentions seemed kind. I despised him because of how he treated his girlfriend. He was manipulative and creepy and a liar. All he wanted was sex, and although he claimed to have qualms of conscience about his behavior, that’s ALL he had. Small qualms. These qualms didn’t stop him from manipulating her, did they? Qualms of conscience don’t make someone a “good” person. Listening to qualms makes a person “good.” Behavior is what I’m interested in, not whether a person feels guilt or not. The fact that he feels guilt proves that he’s not a sociopath, but he’s still a jerk. Just because he rationalizes his behavior, does not mean his rationalizations are justification. We need to interpret his rationalizations with skepticism.
Yes, he rationalized his original interest in Tommie as helpfulness. But let’s think about it. The very first time he met Tommie, he grabbed her arm and threw her in his truck so hard that her head hit the window. She was terrified. Yes, he rationalized that he was helping her to see what could have happened. She shouldn’t have approached him – a stranger – because he could have been dangerous. He rationalized that he taught her a lesson. But the fact that he was willing to frighten her like that was the first hint that his behavior towards her was driven by darker urges. Yes, perhaps this time around his rationalization had some grain of truth in it. Perhaps she did learn a lesson. But was that lesson his to teach?
Lamb’s rationalizations continued throughout the entire book. I never interpreted them as anything but rationalizations. So I was rather surprised when I read in some reviews that they interpreted his intentions as good. Let’s think about this.
Rationalization 1) Abducting her in front of her friends taught her a lesson about approaching strangers and about shallow friends. – We discussed this above.
Rationalization 2) Encouraging her to skip school and lie to her parents in order to hang out with him didn’t corrupt her, because she was already doing those things. – Well, if he really cared, he wouldn’t encourage her to skip school and keep secrets. That’s sleazy, creepy behavior.
Rationalization 3) Abducting her and teaching her to be a woman was helpful, because she needed that experience…it would help her break out of that awkward phase in life and burst into the world with new confidence. She’d look back with fondness on him. – Now this is where the rationalization gets sticky. I interpreted these flash-forwards to be rationalizations taking place in Lamb’s head. BUT, if you interpret these flash-forwards to be accurate or from the point of view of Tommie, I can see where you might (as some people apparently do!) think that Lamb helped Tommie. In the interest of not being narrow-minded, I tried to look at it from that point of view. But, no. The story simply makes more sense to me if I interpret these flash-forwards as rationalizations in the head of Lamb. And Lamb is rationalizing because he knows he’s hurting her. In fact, it’s clear he knows he’s hurting her, because there are other scenes in which he’s crying and telling Tommie that if she ever hates him, she should kick his balls in. Doesn’t that show us that he knows he’s doing wrong?
Some reviews actually suggested that Lamb loved Tommie, and that his intentions were good. But he knew he was hurting her (or else he wouldn’t break down into tears and tell her to kick his balls in, and he wouldn’t rationalize). He was consciously lying and manipulating her. (It’s clear that these were conscious acts, because in one scene he pointed out to his girlfriend that he makes people say and do things.) So, I’m convinced that Lamb knew he was hurting her – why would he act that way if he loved her? That’s not love. Love is selfless. That’s a darker sort of obsession. That’s acting on urges. Love can be an obsession, but we shouldn’t assume that obsession is love.
Finally, some people questioned whether Lamb had actually slept with Tommie. There was nothing that directly said he did, but I felt it was implied. He definitely kissed her, saw her naked, and slept in the same bed as her. Furthermore he got kicks out of letting Tommie watch him having sex with his girlfriend, which is a form of molestation in itself. So, yes, how far he went is still a question, and I’m glad I didn’t have to read that one last detail. But I made my own conclusion about the issue – and it wasn’t good.
8 thoughts on “Lamb, by Bonnie Nadzam”
Great review! I won't be reading this one because the library doesn't have it but after reading your post don't feel I'm missing something good – I don't think I would like it at all.
Excellent commentary. This sounds like an extremely well written character study with a lot nuance. It is truly a difficult subject bit that bears trying to comprehend.
Such an interesting and informative post, I love that you address some of the issues that had cropped up in other reviews.
Yeah, I think there will be few people who are able to read and love this book. Objectively, I was able to see what she did and that it was unique, but I still didn't like it.
Yes, this book certainly had a lot of nuance. And I didn't understand how much until I looked at the other reviews and asked myself: “how on Earth did they understand it THAT way?” Now I can see how certain things were left to interpretation…but I still felt very uneasy about this book. I don't remember feeling quite so uneasy about Lolita. Perhaps that's a book I should revisit now that I'm an adult. Perhaps that's a book I shouldn't have read as a teen in the first place. 😉
Thanks! I felt that I needed to, because I don't like feeling that I'm narrow minded. :p
Hi! I'm a random passer by from LibraryThing – this is a really interesting post.
I believe the narrative is actually an omni POV which mainly follows Lamb (if not a great example of omni).
I thought Lamb was a tremendously well observed character and I'm slightly worried that there are people who see this as a love story, or Lamb as a sympathetic character who's doing something good. He's not: he's a diagnosable psychopath. The displays of emotion are shallow, they are all about him and are part of his manipulation.
The rationalisation is his way of avoiding responsibility for his actions (how can he be responsible for anything if he hasn't done anything wrong?).
The flash forwards I took as an indicator that Tommie gets on with her life without being forever defined by this man and what he does – a positive outcome and once Lamb the psychopath probably wouldn't be keen on.
As for whether he knew he was hurting her – probably, but I don't think it exists for him in any particular way. Like, there's probably been a road traffic accident in China while you were reading this, but it probably didn't have much of an emotional impact on you. That's my take on it – he knows he's hurting her and manipulating her, but he varies between rationalisation and emotional blankness on account of being a psychopath.
I mentioned in my LT review it's one to give your teenage daughter along with a highlighter pen – the subtle signs of manipulation are there throughout the whole thing.
So, yes, really interesting book and really interesting post. 😀
Thanks for your thoughtful reply Theo! It's nice to see someone else who can give this book an open-minded and honest think-through without suggesting that it's a love story or that Lamb helped Tommie in some way.
As for whether he's a diagnosable psychopath or not, I can't really say. I'm not a psychiatrist. He's certainly pretty close to being one, which is an important character trait.