Everybody loves Anne Lamott – that's the problem

Fans won't give Lamott any space, and she won't give her protagonist any distance

Reviewing a novel by Anne Lamott is like being asked, "How do you like my dress?"

Answer very carefully.

Perhaps only Christopher Hitchens, fresh from denouncing Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, would dare pass judgment on the domestic goddess of Salon.com.

With her self-effacing wit and a sharp eye for details, Lamott wrote a biweekly diary on the Internet that attracted legions of devoted followers, taking us through the travails of being a woman, a mother, and a Christian. Newsweek once named it "Best of the Web."

"BirdbyBird" (1994), her description of the challenges and secrets of being a writer, is a sacred text for anyone interested in the craft.

Two years ago, she wrote about her religious life in "Traveling Mercies," a book that traveled up the bestseller list.

But reading her new novel, "Blue Shoe," hints at the limits of Lamott's method. It's not just that her self-cannibalism leads to an inevitable regurgitation of themes and events; after all, the comic anxiety of romance and parenting comes from a well that never goes dry. But there's something corrosive, surely, about a fan base that can't wait more than four days for the next installment of her diary to appear on the Internet.

At some point, every artist needs to work for someone who won't celebrate each drawing she tacks up on the refrigerator. Not just because it incites jealousy in other writers – and failed writers toiling as book critics – but because a novelist needs to keep struggling and growing.

"Blue Shoe" is, to some extent, a victim of ease. It's a kind of low-cal Anne Tyler novel that tells the story of Mattie Ryder, a recently divorced woman struggling to raise her two children. She's moved back into her parents' house – a financial windfall and an emotional disaster. With her father long dead, her mother has not so much given her the house as abandoned it, with all its structural and cosmetic ills, heavy symbols of the hidden rot that crept into Mattie's family when she was growing up there.

She can barely afford to repair the damage – through carpentry or therapy – but her most pressing concern is the sound of gnawing rats behind the sheet rock. She calls an exterminator, but ten minutes after he arrives, he quits. "I'm going to be honest," Daniel tells her, "I don't have the stomach for this job."

Such are the beginnings of great romance. If only Daniel weren't married to a beautiful young woman whom he adores, Mattie could stop sleeping with her ex-husband, whom she loathes. And then perhaps her ex-husband could remain more faithful to his new, pregnant wife.

On top of all this, Mattie's little boy is a storm of hostilities, and her daughter displays signs of nervous compulsions. It's a disturbing repetition of the childhood she endured with her irrepressible parents, liberal activists who had projected a front of domestic bliss from a home of dark unhappiness.

Now, the critical mother who was never there for her, needs but won't accept Mattie's help as she slips slowly under the burden of an undiagnosable brain ailment. Far and away the book's greatest strength is its witty insight into the plight of so many women suspended between responsibilities to their children and parents with no time for their own lives.

"I want to kill myself," she tells a friend, "and then get on with my life."

"You don't know yourself well enough to commit suicide," her friend replies. "It would be considered a homicide."

Lamott writes in a kind of emotional shorthand that's instantly decipherable and funny to anyone who's had children – or parents. Her best and most common technique is that sudden flash of rage wedged between sincere longings to love more. In a hilarious scene at the grocery store, for instance, she thinks, "Sometimes having an elderly mother was like having a toddler, only you felt like attacking her more often."

She handles these family tensions with unfailing perception and tenderness, but this is not a story of much action. Indeed, there are times when the plot could move more slowly only if read from right to left. It has the reliable charm of Lamott's voice, though, and eventually a little mystery develops about the moral transgressions of Mattie's charismatic father.

After some sleuthing inspired by a little plastic shoe, she comes to realize that her mother was something of a saint for enduring such a husband and remaining devoted to her children.

If there's a problem here, it stems from a lack of emotional distance between narrator and protagonist. Despite her apparent independence – her loss of parents and husband and best friend – Mattie is never really allowed to be on her own, to grow up, to despair, to be a character outside the coddling embrace of the narrator's affection.

She prays often for guidance and never abandons church, but her theology sounds like a series of Thought-for-the-Day pleasantries, enough to inspire sighs of comic exasperation but not any repentance that would make her uncomfortable – or less self-centered and promiscuous. While those around her suffer real despair and tragedy, Mattie feels bad. Sometimes real bad. She even overeats, threatening her job as a clothing model.

Of course, nobody wants Hester Prynne smoldering under her own guilt and Hawthorne's laser analysis, but it would be satisfying if Mattie could exist in a world that wasn't designed to absolve her of all transgressions with clever quips and bring everything, ultimately, to her satisfaction.

"Blue Shoe" benefits from all of Lamott's usual talents, but it suffers from them too.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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