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One October morning, Dominick Birdsey's schizophrenic twin, Thomas, chops off his own right hand in the middle of the public library. And this is a good day for Dominick, the hero of Wally Lamb's bestselling novel I Know This Much Is True. He's almost bankrupt, his wife has left him after the crib death of their infant daughter, he's living with a dumb-as-dirt aerobics instructor who just got pregnant by someone else (her uncle, but that's a whole different subplot), his stepfather, Ray, hates him, and his mother is dying of breast cancer. "Closing in on forty," Dominick reflects, "I was wifeless, childless. Now I'd be motherless too. Left with my crazy brother and Ray."

I Know This Much Is True (900 pages of wretchedness, weighing in at $27.50 and three-and-a-half pounds) may seem an unlikely commercial success, but Dominick's misery has plenty of company. A sampling of past Publishers Weekly and New York Times Book Review fiction bestseller lists yields the stories of Beth, who loses her three-year-old son to kidnappers; Ruth, a penniless farm wife whose husband goes insane and beats her mother to death while her three-year-old son watches; Ninah, trapped in an abusive fundamentalist cult founded by her own grandfather; Ellen, whose drunken, violent father abandons her to the care of a cruel and distant grandmother; Ada, dying of AIDS in her decaying hometown; Frannie, the battered wife of a dangerous New York City cop, running away to save her life; and Dolores (in Wally Lamb's previous novel, She's Come Undone), who eats her way up to 257 pounds after a neighbor rapes her and her mother is hit by a truck. At least Job had half a chapter of happiness before his world disintegrated. In these novels, life starts out unbearable ...

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December 7, 1998

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