Kathleen NorrisApril 26, 2010
Book cover
Imperfect Birdsby By Anne LamottRiverhead Books. 288p $25.95

Fans of Anne Lamott who have followed Rosie, her mother, Elizabeth, and her stepfather, James, through Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, will welcome this new novel. Rosie is now a teenager, and the novel’s opening line, “There are so many evils that pull on our children,” will resonate with parents.

Lamott provides the background to allow this novel to stand alone, and her wit is still much in evidence: “Life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out;” “‘Not me’ is a good name for God.” But readers may find their patience with Elizabeth wearing thin. In today’s economy, someone who does not have to work and complains about being bored will be hard pressed to find a sympathetic ear.

Elizabeth is a familiar figure in middle-class America, over-analyzed and over-medicated, taking one anti-depressant “for the obsession...that Rosie would die” and another to “control her rage.” Despite years of treatment, her life remains “wasted in a ping-pong game of narcissism versus self-loathing, punctuated by sloth and depression.” This book addresses the chaos that ensues when such a person attempts to raise a teenager to adulthood.

Parents of teens will recognize Elizabeth’s temptation to use money as “the way to [Rosie’s] heart, a five here, a ten there, a shopping spree every so often,” and her living for the few moments “of public affection instead of the minimal grunt.” She not only fears for her daughter, she is afraid of her. And Rosie, talented, bright, but socially insecure, has learned to manipulate her mother with stony silence, lying about drug use, and coolly reflecting that “sexually active” is “the phrase you used with parents.”

Lamott handily demonstrates the inability of fatuous New Age truisms to help people cope with reality. As Elizabeth dutifully jots down the “Love” mantra of a motivational speaker—“letting others voluntarily evolve”—she ponders her need to give Rosie ever more advanced urine tests for drugs. Lamott takes a risk loading her book with the jargon of pop psychology and 12-step programs. After James explodes in a supermarket checkout line, a friend comments: “You got humility out of it. And you got to experience your self-repair mechanism.” There is talk of releasing Rosie “to her higher power.” And when Rosie, high on Ecstasy, is detained at a police station after a party, James tells Elizabeth, “This is a lucky break...something important is being revealed.”

Not surprisingly, Lamott’s characters epitomize the all-American sense of entitlement to other peoples’ cultures. Rearranging furniture is practicing “soul feng shui,” and a sweat lodge is meant “to heal the damage for the next generation.” Two thousand years of Christian tradition are jettisoned in a single remark: “Our church may start offering members sweat lodge as a spiritual tool—so we’ll have more to offer than talking and worship.” Elizabeth, on having sat through four sessions of steam, describes it as “probably the single greatest achievement of my life,” one of the saddest lines in the book and perhaps the most revealing. For the younger generation has learned well from its elders. Fenn, Rosie’s seducer and drug supplier, loftily describes body piercing as “about finding openings.” He has read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, and high on psychedelic mushrooms, he asks, “‘Don’t you totally love Aborigines?’” Rosie “guessed she did. They came down gently as clouds.”

Rosie’s fantasy of a life with Fenn is of course unsustainable. And as she rationalizes the juggling act her life has become—“She was getting her homework done, mostly, stablilizing the parents, and living the life she had dreamed of and despaired of having”—the reader is heartbroken and wary. That the young couple has been getting away with their trysts by pretending to attend meetings of Al-Anon is a bitter irony.

It seems ironic, too, that Elizabeth and James decide to have Rosie kidnapped by friends and tossed in a wilderness “tough love” rehab program. Some readers will be consoled by Rosie’s holding her “truth sticks” in the camp’s “truth circles” and composing “truth letters” to her parents. This reader grew increasingly uneasy. Rosie eagerly anticipates the rehab camp’s next level: “They’d make their own drums...then do drum circles daily, practice community living, continue with therapy.”

But what can “community” mean in this context, to someone whose experience of family is of people living together but alone, isolated by crippling self-involvement? Whose stabs at openness are couched in impenetrable code: “You need to tell me all of your unsaids.” Even for imperfect human beings, some things are better left unsaid.

Readers of Imperfect Birds will be both moved and dismayed at Rosie’s seeking independence in all the wrong ways, with drugs and unprotected sex. But even she recognizes that what she needs most of all is a “mother to be strong...a mommy.” She needs parents who are willing to be parents, and that is what Elizabeth and James, steeped in self-absorption and their own neuroses, are unable to provide. This book is an immersion in a contemporary American tragedy.

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