Book Review: Imperfect Birds: A Novel
By Anne Lamott, Riverhead, Hardcover, 2010, 288 pages, $25.95
Mother-daughter relations are notoriously difficult during the teenage years. Even more so when the mother is a recovering alcoholic and the daughter is slipping into the quicksand of drug use, as is the case in Anne Lamott's latest novel, "Imperfect Birds." All that tension and unpleasantness doesn't make for an exactly relaxing read, but Lamott's fans will be pleased nonetheless.
These are characters Lamott has written about before: Rosie, who would appear to be a model teenager -- beautiful, earning straight A's and working over the summer as an assistant at Vacation Bible School; her mother, Elizabeth, who doesn't work, but finds raising a teenager enough of a job while she copes with depression and her past alcoholism; and stepfather, James, a writer devoted to his work, who strives to be both hip and hard-nosed when it comes to teens.
Rosie insists she's "a good kid," and while she has the potential to get into a top school in a year, Elizabeth still lives in constant fear of car crashes, drugs and other lurking dangers to her girl. As Elizabeth gradually discovers Rosie's drug use -- Rosie tries a little bit of everything: weed, ecstasy, mushrooms, prescription drugs, cocaine, acid, cough syrup -- and the lies to cover it up, her fears are validated. Rosie is dying for independence, but Elizabeth is constantly afraid of that statement becoming literal.
Complicating Elizabeth's role as parent are her own memories of an imperfect childhood, and mistakes from her past, including alcohol abuse. "Elizabeth remembered herself at ten, still lonely and always worried, about how crazy her parents and the friends of theirs were who scared her half to death with their moist affection, their fights and crying, and the drunken end of their night dancing. She remembered how much time she's spent alone in the backyard, setting up horse jumps with broom handles, being the jumper, being the horse."
Even though the whole family attends either AA or Al-Anon meetings, they have trouble recognizing and accepting the extent of Rosie's drug abuse. As Rosie looks at herself in the mirror preparing to go to a party she reflects a teenager trying to figure out her identity, but also learning how to lie: "She practiced looking hard, then tender and dewy, sassy, ecstatic, bored, and above it all."
The reader watches as Elizabeth wrestles with the compromise between her desire for her daughter's affection, and the need to protect her daughter with boundaries and consequences. Her husband James weighs into the debate as well and adds a fun dimension to the book as he is constantly gathering literary material from everyone. Still, James has no immunity to the havoc wreaked on the family as Rosie loses control.
Lamott skillfully tells the story from both Rosie's and Elizabeth's perspectives, allowing the reader access to both of them. With Rosie, Lamott captures the attitude, the moodiness, the self-centered angst of a young woman. Here she describes the unspoken tension of a crush: "The closer they got without actually touching, the more she could feel it, hear it, like a tuning fork, or some phantom instrument you'd play to make spirit music at a s