'Imperfect Birds': Anne Lamott's novel of flirting with addiction
A review of "Imperfect Birds," author Anne Lamott's new novel of a well-meaning family that indulges and abets their teenager's flirtation with addiction — until it's almost too late. Lamott reads Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Seattle's University Village shopping center.
Special to The Seattle Times
Anne LamottThe author of "Imperfect Birds" will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble, University Village, Seattle; free (206-517-4107 or http://store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/store/2573).
by Anne Lamott
Riverhead, 278 pp., $29.95
Anne Lamott's new novel at first invokes the sort of twinge one feels when catching that Bob Dylan song on a Victoria's Secret commercial. Yes, it's still good art. No, you can't blame an artist for wanting to make a buck. Yet there's no ignoring the little inner voice asking, Et tu, Anne?
OK, it's not fair to say that Lamott sells out with "Imperfect Birds," but it is worthy of note that she's crafted a book so much more in the mainstream than her quirkier earlier works, dealing as it does with raising a teenager in a time of paradoxical addiction awareness and baffling blindness to youngsters' drug abuse and its consequences.
The story line builds on characters from Lamott's earlier novels, this time tracing the high-school years of Rosie, the A-student, athletic daughter of Elizabeth, a shaky recovering alcoholic; and the wisecracking James, a loving and remarkably tolerant stepfather.
When James offers one of his frequent cautions to his wife that she "must not reward brattiness or flake," it's followed by one of those efficiently sketched, exquisitely veracious internal lectures that Lamott does so well:
"Elizabeth knew he was right. You want so desperately for your child to be a great kid, just like you, mature, conscious, and cool — you in another body. At the very least, you want your child to have good manners."
The chronicling of this era in Rosie's life is more literal, less literary than Lamott's earlier takes. And "Imperfect Birds" comes at a time when realistic novels about young adults at risk resonate. If in doubt, start by checking out the bookstore shelf commandeered by best-selling, hugely prolific Jodi Picoult, who so nimbly climbs into the minds of young people. (By my reckoning, this genre really got rolling with the work of Tabitha King, wife of the superstar author of the same surname. Her 1993 novel "One on One," about high-school athletes who fall in love, is a classic.)
"Imperfect Birds" traces the harrowing progression of Rosie from what the progressive parents see as the Oh-she's-just-experimenting-and-individuating stage to a much darker, more dangerous place. Elizabeth's guilt load about her real and imagined maternal failures leads her to miss, rationalize, ignore and forgive the many signs of trouble.
Even so, she knows James is onto something when he asks her, "Did you ever think that maybe if Rosie keeps pulling the rug out from under you like this, it's partly because you keep getting back on her rug?"
But when the parents finally take a hard line — home drug tests, curfews, more rules — it doesn't arrest the problem; Rosie's downward spiral picks up speed. And at this point I felt the novel move from picaresque to fable; suddenly it's not possible to separate this family drama from our own, or that of a much wider world.
The pattern of ignoring signs of decay, allowing our own past defeats to stand in the way of taking action — suddenly I'm caught up in that unique Lamottian ability to make us identify and soul-search. Just as her wonderful first big hit, "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" was about much more than writer's block, "Imperfect Birds" is about more than family dynamics and a problem kid.
In the end Lamott is doing what she does so well, teaching us about survival and charting the very rough road to redemption.
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a Portland writer. She blogs at http://www.TypeLikeTheWind.com
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