By Ron Charles
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; C01
By Anne Lamott
278 pp. $25.95
Why must one feel so defensive about liking Anne Lamott? Detractors complain about her twee self-deprecation and New Age filigree, but I suspect there's something offensive about her success, her perfectly calibrated NPR appeal. After all, she's written three essential books, titles that seem assured of gift-giving immortality at yuppie weddings and baby showers: "Operating Instructions" (1993), her moving advice for beginning mothers; "Bird by Bird" (1994), her practical advice for beginning writers; and "Traveling Mercies" (1999), her soulful advice for beginning churchgoers.
But her fiction has always seemed somewhat ephemeral next to these nonfiction classics. ("Blue Shoe," anyone? Anyone?) That could change with her new novel, "Imperfect Birds." Not only is it a moving and perceptive portrayal of raising a substance-abusing teenager, but it implicitly offers the kind of advice that many parents need to hear. One hopes that concerned friends and school counselors will begin passing "Imperfect Birds" to beleaguered moms and dads just as they've long given copies of "Operating Instructions" to expectant parents. (Roxanna Robinson's "Cost," about a mother dealing with her heroin-addict son, is a better novel -- one of the best I've read in years -- but it's so devastating that giving it to any parent in the throes of that trauma would be cruel.)
"Imperfect Birds" opens during the complicated moment in a family's life when a child is hovering between adolescence and adulthood. "Life with most teenagers," Lamott notes, "was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out." Rosie Ferguson is 17 years old, an accomplished athlete and student in a quiet, tie-dyed, vegan community outside San Francisco referred to as "Mayberry on acid." Her mother, Elizabeth, is anxious about the "many evils that pull on our children," but she has reason to be hopeful, too. With the comic hyperbole we love her for, Lamott captures the conflicted feelings of many parents counting down to high school graduation: "On good days, when everyone got along, Elizabeth believed she'd die when Rosie left, keen forever like an Irish fisherman's widow. On bad days, she felt like a prisoner at the Level 1 Reception Area in Pelican Bay, marking off the days on the prison wall until Rosie's graduation."
That's the tension that powers this story, the parental schizophrenia that Lamott describes with such sympathy and tenderness: feeling disgusted by your child's behavior and living in terror of losing her. What parent can't relate to Elizabeth's late-night prayer: "Could you please do only a little bit of everything, and not get in trouble with it, and live to be eighteen, and not scare me to death? Very often? Please please please." And what teenager hasn't delivered Rosie's urgent plea? "Can't you pay less attention to me?"
The story that develops is not particularly plot-heavy, but it never seems slow or static. Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic doing her best to stay clean and upbeat. Her husband, Rosie's stepfather, has recently gotten a job writing a column for public radio, which begins to absorb more and more of his time. "They gave Rosie a lot of independence," Lamott writes, "partly because she seemed to have such a good head on her shoulders, had never gotten into any real trouble, but mostly because she did so well at school."
Lamott takes us through Rosie's summer before senior year and shows us the girl's gradual slide into a life of reflexive lying, risky sex and ecumenical substance abuse: friends' ADD medication, parents' Valium, cough syrup, ecstasy, mushrooms, acid, marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, ketamine, cocaine, LSD, horse tranquilizers, etc., etc. And Rosie is an accomplished chemist when it comes to beating the urine tests her mother resorts to.
The perspective switches back and forth from Rosie's self-destructive behavior to Elizabeth's panicked efforts to figure out what's going wrong. But Lamott remains impressively dispassionate, recording Rosie's descent without a hint of "Go Ask Alice" preachiness. Instead, she allows the slow burn of this tragedy to smolder. It's a startlingly honest depiction of middle-class teenage life in all its baffling contradictions. Rosie is a wonderful girl, funny, bright and loving, a great counselor at the local Bible camp. She's absolutely right when she tells her mom: "I got all A's last term. I'm holding down two jobs. I'm a good kid." She just also happens to be a shoplifting, sex-bartering, pill-popping liar. And Lamott never loses that arresting sense of Rosie's conflicted mind. Even in the middle of her most irresponsible behavior, this young woman "craved a moment with her mother, on the couch at home, doing nothing together, letting her mom comb her hair with those mothering fingers."
What's so frightening is that this tragedy takes place even though Rosie and her parents have such a good relationship. Elizabeth talks to her daughter openly and freely about sex, about alcohol, about her friends' crazy behavior. She's old-fashioned enough to read her daughter's diary, but modern enough to feel guilty about abusing her daughter's trust. Rosie and Elizabeth fight and make up the way you'd want any family to function.
If there's a New Age voice in this novel, it's mercifully off to the side, in the form of a friend whom Elizabeth adores but treats with refreshing skepticism. When Elizabeth hears that LOVE means Letting Others Voluntarily Evolve, she writes it down, but notes that it sounds "very kicky." Lamott has spent enough time thinking about the hard elements of a spiritual life to know that not every inspiring platitude has real substance.
Unfortunately, "Imperfect Birds" is a sequel to two novels published 13 and 27 years ago, "Crooked Little Heart" (1997) and "Rosie" (1983). Even ardent fans will have trouble recalling the details of those earlier stories, and though "Imperfect Birds" reads well on its own, there are a few distracting allusions and confusing holes.
But don't let that stop you. This is a mature, thoughtful novel about an all-too-common family crisis, and in typical Lamott fashion, it doesn't ignore the pain or exalt in despair. The salvation she offers in these pages is hard-won.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.