I think I may have said somewhere before that Anne Lamott will always be my favourite writer of memoir. Her three collections of essays on life and faith — Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and Grace Eventually — along with her parenting memoir, Operating Instructions, and her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird — may well be my five favourite works of nonfiction in the whole wide world. I’ve read only a couple of her novels, but they’ve never been quite as successful, either with the reading public generally or with me personally.
That said, I quite enjoyed Imperfect Birds. If I was reading it just as a novel I had picked up, rather than comparing it to Lamott’s nonfiction, I don’t think I’d have much to criticize at all, though for me it will never be in the same category as her memoirs.
Imperfect Birds continues the story begun in two of Lamott’ss earlier novels, Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, but I found no difficulty jumping into this novel without having read the first two: it stands along well. In this novel, Rosie is a seventeen-year-old about to begin her senior year of high school; her mother Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic and her stepfather James is an aspiring though not particuarly successful writer.
Elizabeth and James are good people, the kind who wany the best for their child and hope that she won’t repeat their youthful mistakes. But Rosie, along with her best friends Alice and Jody, appears to be a good, successful, high-achieving teenager on the surface while inwardly she is being sucked into an ever-deeper hellhole of illicit drug use. She is an accomplished liar, so Elizabeth and James are slow to catch on to the extent of her drug abuse — until they can’t ignore it any longer.
It’s a chilling story for any parent, because one of the things Lamott does really well in this novel is illustrate how easily and effectively a teenager can lie to well-intentioned parents who realy want to be deceived. Rosie is a nice kid and you do wish her well, but it’s hard to tell which is more annoying at times: her deception or her mother’s helpless passivity.
The novel is well-written and highly readable, although a few details kept snagging my attention and pulling me out of the story — far too many descriptions of how places, things and especially people smell, for one thing, and moments of dialogue where characters suddenly begin talking like — well, like an Anne Lamott essay, in fact. Maybe these aren’t flaws, but they did jar me from time to time.
The theme here is similar to Lamott’s nonfiction: we are all imperfect people stumbling around in a broken world, clinging on to glimpsese of grace from other, equally broken people or form a God we’re not even sure we believe in. There are no easy answers, no simple happy endings, but vivid moments of love and grace and tenderness which just might be enough to see us through.