Imperfect Birds

Anne Lamott’s latest reconvenes the characters of two earlier novels in a story of middle-class drug and alcohol abuse.

Imperfect Birds By Anne Lamott Riverhead 288 pp., $25.95

Fans of Anne Lamott – and they are legion – will be delighted to hear a favorite author’s voice in her latest novel, Imperfect Birds. Unfortunately, all the characters have Lamott’s voice. As a work of fiction, the book suffers from too much of a single note, even if that note often rings with Lamott’s wisdom and humor.

“Imperfect Birds” reconvenes the characters in two previous novels, “Rosie” and “Crooked Little Heart.” More than 20 years have passed, and widowed Elizabeth and her second husband, James, are now nearing their 50s. They’re raising Elizabeth’s 17-year-old daughter, Rosie, in a bucolic town near the San Francisco Bay, where no one seems to work in an office and everyone goes to AA.

Trouble in paradise is established in Chapter 1, when Rosie fails to show up on time for a shopping spree with her parents. Elizabeth’s mind wanders. Her thoughts extend to her and James’s aging bodies – “they had problems now in areas where they hardly used to have areas” – and to the disturbing information she uncovered in her daughter’s diary: “She had had to do Lamaze” after reading about her daughter’s sexual activity. The one-liners are funny, but they don’t push the story forward.

Eventually Rosie shows up, breathless and full of apologies. Elizabeth and James relent. The rest of the book follows this same pattern: a problem is introduced, the characters mull, and the issue is diffused without being resolved. Admittedly, this pattern might be called “life”; however, in a novel, it can be unsatisfying and shaggy.

As with many of Lamott’s books, the theme of “Imperfect Birds” is the temptation to self-medicate. Elizabeth, a recovering alcoholic, can’t quite stay on the wagon. Rosie is smuggling Valium in her designer jeans and getting high on stevia, ’shrooms, and Ectasy. Since the point of view shifts between Elizabeth and Rosie, the reader is not surprised by Rosie’s drug habits. Elizabeth shouldn’t be surprised either, since Rosie confesses all in her diary. Yet, Elizabeth turns a blind eye. Instead of confronting the problem she fusses and frets, throwing her energy into editing her husband’s radio essays for National Public Radio and making organic meals, whose menus are often described on the page. Relieved of suspense, the narration concerns itself mainly with ruminations about addiction, adolescence, and the possibility of God.

In Lamott’s first-person essays, these ruminations are often enlightening and hilarious. In “Imperfect Birds,” they are marred by characters who lack the self-awareness and charm to carry them off. In one pivotal scene Elizabeth is shocked and horrified when Rosie refuses to eat her scallops. But a few chapters later, she nonchalantly picks up a drug-testing kit at the pharmacy and watches her daughter provide a urine sample. For Elizabeth, Rosie’s emotional separation cuts deeper than her addiction behavior; however, readers who are less inured to drug abuse may find Elizabeth’s attitude bewildering. And the appearance of a privileged lifestyle – scallops and matinee movies and hot chocolate at the Roastery – can make James and Elizabeth’s anxiety that they don’t have enough money to send Rosie to a treatment facility less poignant.

This is too bad, because Lamott is describing a young woman at risk and adults who care deeply about her. Readers who identify with growing up or raising children in a middle-class, drug-riddled environment may find particular solace in Lamott’s observations; nevertheless, many of them are credited to Alcoholics Anonymous. Many more are credited to other characters in the book. (“ [A teenager] is South Africa before the revolution, cruel and crazy,” one of Elizabeth’s friends says in another great one-liner. “Divest! Divest!”)

Eventually, all the sympathy and wit threaten to overwhelm the scenario. With so many characters struggling with their own addictions, attending meetings, and commenting on one another’s progress, by the end of “Imperfect Birds” I, too, was ready to leave the nest.

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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