May 2010

Jennifer Taylor

fiction

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

Before becoming known for her down-to-earth spiritual writing, Anne Lamott was a novelist. Imperfect Birds is her return to fiction, dealing with the same quirky family she depicted in her previous novels, Rosie and Crooked Little Heart. The tone is the same familiar combination of endearing and whimsical.

Rosie Ferguson used to be an intelligent, lovely kid, but is now victim to the monstrosity of seventeen-year-old hormones, leaving her almost unrecognizable to her parents. Lamott deftly captures the agonizing time between puberty and adulthood when everyone involved is just hoping to make it out alive. And Rosie’s mother, Elizabeth, a recovering alcoholic, is painfully aware of the multitude of dangers surrounding her daughter, even in peaceful Landsdale, California.

While waiting to meet Rosie in town one day, Elizabeth notices groups of aimless kids hanging around. “Some of the young men converging at the kiosk had cultivated the look of homelessness, but without the inconvenience and hardship: car keys dangled from their belts as they drank four dollar lattes. Some looked like star athletes, because they were or had been. But you saw a feral, dark energy in some of the young here, of despair, blankness, failure and indirect gazes, ill health, or sometimes, a dangerous raw male potency.”

One of Rosie’s best friends, Jody, has already spent three months in rehab. After seeing Jody post-recovery, James, Elizabeth’s husband and Rosie’s stepfather, says something quintessentially Lamott: “You don’t drink anymore, right, Jody? Still off the sauce, Jody? That’s all behind us now, right Jody?” Then he asks about one of her hobbies. Because she’s too afraid to respect to her daughter’s privacy, Elizabeth reads Rosie’s diary and finds references to experimentation with sex and drugs. After being confronted by her mother’s ever-present concern, Rosie concocts a multitude of excuses that leave Elizabeth mollified because it’s what she wants to believe. Lamott skillfully illuminates how we yearn to blindly trust those closest to us, even if they don’t deserve it.

On the surface, Rosie is a good kid working for a non-denominational Vacation Bible School with Elizabeth’s good friend Rae, and giving tennis lessons to her favorite teacher. But maybe Elizabeth is justified in her anxiety over the kind of life Rosie is leading the summer before senior year of high school.

Unlike his wife, James doesn’t believe Rosie’s breezy justifications and puts pressure on Elizabeth to hold their daughter to firm consequences instead of giving in to forgiveness. The story is just as much about their marriage as about their daughter and how that changes family dynamics. Caught between her husband and daughter, Elizabeth often feels the urge to protect Rosie’s transgressions from James. But even though her subterfuge might unite her with Rosie, what about the secrets Elizabeth begins to keep from James because of her? Another writer might have pushed Rosie’s character over the edge to antagonist. But in Lamott’s hands, Rosie is more complex and often cognizant of the harm she causes her family, even though she can’t seem to break the selfish and destructive pattern.

Lamott stretches out her story over the pages at a comfortable pace, detailing the everyday rhythm of their lives. James is a writer whose attention to his craft leaves Elizabeth unmoored with hours to fill during the day. She doesn’t trust her own capabilities enough to look for a job that might bring fulfillment and re-focus her attention on something other than her family. In a poignant scene, Elizabeth Googles James and her friends and finds references to them online, although there isn’t anything to find out about herself.

For Elizabeth, there always seems to be a catastrophe up ahead with warning signs pointing that her daughter could be next, forcing her to remain vigilant at all times. Over the summer a graduate from Rosie’s high school dies in a car crash that leaves his girlfriend with a lasting injury after a night of drinking and Ecstasy. So Elizabeth knows that she must attend AA meetings to keep her own behavior moderated while she waits for something catastrophic to happen to her own family.

Imperfect Birds is a carefully rendered story of a family in crisis. Lamott’s writing is suffused by her trademark candor and ability to find significance in the mundane details of her protagonists’ lives that make them relevant to her readers.  

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books
ISBN: 1594487510
288 Pages