Anne Lamott's seventh novel features alcoholism, drug addiction, and family dysfunction. This will not surprise Lamott's fans. Her characters—including herself in her five nonfiction books—are always "imperfect birds," and some are clearly on the endangered list. Most are also sensitive, funny, intelligent, and frightened by the messes they keep getting themselves into. That's why we love them, and their author, so much.
Imperfect Birds (Riverhead), released today, continues the story of Elizabeth and Rosie Ferguson that began in Rosie (1983) and Crooked Little Heart (1997). You don't have to have read the first two books to understand the third, though a little background can't hurt. Elizabeth is the alcoholic daughter of two alcoholics. Her husband died in a car crash when their daughter, Rosie, was four. A couple of years later, Elizabeth meets James, an alcoholic would-be novelist. Eventually they marry and begin going to AA meetings. By the time Rosie is 9 or 10, her mother is clean and sober, though inclined to paranoid episodes and panic attacks. As Elizabeth battles her demons over the next several years, Rosie faces her own issues—a child molester, a pregnant friend, competition and cheating, and, always, the need for independence from her hovering mother.
By the beginning of Imperfect Birds, it looks as if Elizabeth, still worrying incessantly, has maybe given her 17-year-old daughter more freedom than the woman-child can handle. Rosie has been on the pill for two years, is sexually active, is unreliable and dishonest, drinks, does a wide variety of drugs, and runs with a fast crowd. Elizabeth more or less knows all this (though she is unaware of the full extent of Rosie's misbehavior) but is afraid to intervene. After all, Rosie's grades are good. She is charming. When things go wrong, she always has a plausible excuse. Most of all, if Elizabeth lays down the law, she might lose Rosie's affection, those fleeting moments of mother-daughter bonding for which Elizabeth lives.
The plot is not the reason to read Imperfect Birds: Rosie does bad things. Elizabeth, in deep denial, keeps hoping everything will turn out all right. James, whose denial is more shallow, sometimes nurtures Elizabeth's hopes and sometimes sees reality. Rosie, along with her friends Jody and Alice and Fenn, keeps on doing bad things, until, inevitably, a crisis forces Elizabeth to see clearly and take action.
The imperfect birds—the flawed characters—are what makes this book stand out. Never have Lamott's people seemed so heartbreakingly real. Yes, I say as the mother of former teenagers: I know why Elizabeth wants to believe the best, I feel the bond she has with her wayward but charming daughter, I understand why the time for action never seems to arrive. Yes, I say as a former teenager myself: I know why Rosie needs to get away from her mother's worries, I understand why her group of friends is so important to her. These are real women living, on a grand and tragic scale, the little conflicts all of us face daily as we and our children grow up.
Still, I keep wanting to jump into the story and shake some sense into them. My heart sinks as Rosie repeatedly jeopardizes her health, her sanity, her very life. I grow more exasperated as Elizabeth ignores the mounting pile of evidence that her daughter desperately needs adult intervention. Yet I, the reader, know so much more about what is going on than Elizabeth does. Lamott is letting me see the oncoming disaster, not with my own limited maternal vision, but with God's eyes.
If Lamott didn't have a wacky sense of humor, reading this book might be depressing. If she didn't have an underlying sense of hope, it could be unbearable. But Lamott—herself a recovering substance abuser, the daughter of two alcoholics, and the mother of a young man just leaving his teens—is a spunky survivor, and she invests her own faith, hope, and love in her characters. As in nearly all Lamott's books, God is never far off. Elizabeth is not a believer, but Rae, her best friend, has enough faith for both of them:
Rae was Rosie's authority on all things spiritual, because her beliefs were so simple and kind. You were loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child. God loved you no matter how crazy you felt on the inside, no matter what a fake you were; always, even in your current condition, even before coffee. God loves you crazily, like I love you, Rae said, like a slightly overweight auntie, who sees only your marvelousness and need.
When Elizabeth desperately needs to pray, the only god she can imagine is "an entity called 'not me,' lowercase." Rosie believes "in something, some sort of energy field or force, like a cross between the oceans and their cat, Rascal." It is enough. Eventually truth begins to set them free.
Which is not to say that the ending is happy, or that it is unhappy. Elizabeth and Rosie still have a long way to go. This will not surprise Lamott's fans, who expect her books to be a lot like life. But funnier—even when they are breaking your heart.
For more on Lamott's faith, see Agnieszka Tennant's delightful 2003 interview for Christianity Today magazine.