I love Anne Lamott's nonfiction works. During one particularly difficult year of my life I listened to her entire canon of nonfiction on CD. That, and a particularly dedicated therapist, helped pull me through the year safely. But her fiction? Not so much.
Teenaged Rosie is at the heart of 'Imperfect Birds.' A good student, off and on good daughter, and generally honest kid, in the summer between her junior and senior years in high school she starts falling in with the wrong crowd. From the relative "innocence" of experimenting with marijuana, alcohol and a few harder drugs, Rosie suddenly begins to spiral out of control. In her favor, she has two parents (including a step-father, as Rosie's biological father died), and a whole support system of people who love her.
Something about Lamott's fiction lacks the spark of herself, a certain impish quality, that seems to flow so freely in her nonfiction. I didn't care about Rosie. Lamott didn't make me feel invested in her character. By the 3/4 mark I was bored, just waiting for it to end. And when it did I breathed a sigh of relief.
I found the book so disappointing, so blah in writing style, and don't plan on reading more of her fiction. Though I'll never hesitate to pick up her nonfiction. I recommend that without hesitation.
Elizabeth lives with her husband James and her daughter Rosie in Marin County, leading a seemingly idyllic-seeming life. But everyone has secrets. In this continuation of her 1997 book "Rosie," Lamott employs a blend of sensuality infused with spirituality, bringing each scene to life with a vivid clarity of sight, smell and insight. Facing her senior year in high school, Rosie, most of all, is duplicitous to her parents who trust her judgment and believe her lies. Since this is a novel about people who care about one another, the conflicts are within the family unit, with the mother-daughter relationship primarily at risk. By taking Rosie at face value, the marital union is jeopardized, but as it becomes more apparent that action must be taken if they all are to survive as a family, resolution and redemption are sought in an unconventional way. The resolution of the family crisis is handled with wit and perspective, and never tips over into Jodi Picoult territory. Given the Marin setting and the fact that the characters while not particularly affluent have means beyond the common solution, not all readers will sympathize with Rosie and her situation. She's fortunate to have such loving parents who don't give up on her. She is also fortunate in her friendships. The bonds between her and her two closest friends are treated with heart and warmth, displaying a loyalty enviable to anyone.
Although this book continues Anne Lamott's 1997 novel, it can be real as a standalone since there are enough references to the former book which enlighten a new reader and refresh the memory of someone who's memories may had dimmed.
I love Anne Lamott's non-fiction, so I wanted to love Imperfect Birds. It's a novel about Elizabeth and James, parents dealing with their teenager, Rosie. She is falling deeper and deeper into drugs and other addictive behaviors, in spite of being a smart, high-achieving kid. Rosie is whiny and difficult, a quintessential entitled brat, and I found the parents also harder to relate to than I thought I would. In general, I'd say that I never fully connected with the characters.
One aspect of the story I enjoyed was the deep friendships and community that their family enjoyed with Rae and Lank. Not going through the experience alone was invaluable for Elizabeth and James, and Rae also served as a safe adult that Rosie could talk to. The writing is fine, not spectacular but certainly good for contemporary fiction. The story is heartbreaking and certainly real for some families, who might take comfort in reading about someone else tackling these problems. It might also function as a good warning for parents who are not connected to their teenage children and need a kick in the pants to provide adequate supervision and guidance.
In spite of the book's shortcomings, it has a tone of hope, which helps readers to avoid the despair that thinking about these topics sometimes brings. For those interested in the subject, I'd recommend this book, with a few reservations.
This novel begs parents to ask themselves the question, "how much freedom is too much freedom to allow your teenager". This book is number three of a trilogy --I have not read the other two books: Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, but it is not necessary to read them to fully understand this story.
In this novel, seventeen year old Rosie Ferguson is an intelligent and pretty girl who had always been pretty open with her mother. In the past she has shared personal details with her family about her friends and classmate's problems. However, as the new school year approaches it becomes clear, at least to the reader, that Rosie is a troubled girl in crisis.
Her mother, Elizabeth, is a recovering alcoholic and suffers from anxiety and depression. She knows her daughter hangs out with a fast crowd, and that Rosie has not always been honest with her, but yet Elizabeth hates to make waves. She fears that if she digs too deep, she may risk ruining her relationship with her daughter. Rosie has a stepfather, who is obsessed with work, and he seems to be pretty much a non entity. However, when a crisis occurs and things get out of control, the parents are forced to take action to help their daughter.
MY THOUGHTS - I was so looking forward to this book, and really wanted to like it, but ultimately, I was a somewhat disappointed. The writing was vivid, but I wanted to shake the mother and say "wake-up and do something". Maybe it was partly because she was struggling with her own issues, but it is not like the family did not have a good support system. I also did not care for any of the characters, and I find it hard to love a book, when I can't relate to, or don't like anyone in it. Yet, the novel tells an important story, and in many ways gives insight, at least to the observant reader, of signs to look for in a troubled teen.
on June 8, 2010
Ten years ago, I loved anything Anne Lamott wrote, but I've become less and less enchanted with her. After this book, I feel as if I'm at the end of a relationship. Just a third of the way through, I started skimming, and not because I really cared about Rosie, but because I was looking for places where Lamott does her overly-glib thing: you know, the places where she wants us to say, Oh, you're so right and so funny. I'm not sure when it happened, but it feels as if the rest of us have grown up and she's stuck in time--and I kept getting the feeling that I'd read all her characters' witty comebacks before. Don't waste your money.
on May 14, 2010
Ms. Lamott never brought the characters to life. They seem flat, although of all of them, I got the best sense of Rosie. Rae was too much the earth mother, can do no wrong, warm and fuzzy; James, the husband, was always trying to use others' sayings and writings for his own, as he fumbled to write a novel, and Elizabeth, the mother, was, well, I don't know, as there are too many words to describe her. It is alluded that she has a psychiatric background and is an alcoholic. Not much is revealed of her family life, much less that of James. Her previous husband, Andrew, died, and apparently that contributed to her emotional and alcohol downfall but this is not explored at all - only vague references to it throughout the book.
Rosie's friends were not believable. Finn, the drug dealer, later boyfriend, makes a connection with Elizabeth that is so blatantly manipulative that I cringed; and Elizabeth bought it. Rosie's two other drug friends, Jody and Alice are also one-dimensional. Jody goes to rehab, gets cured and becomes the poster child for no drugs. Alice also got clean, although it was unclear in the book how this happened. I hung in with the book through Rosie's time in the "wilderness camp" for drug addicted kids, somewhere in the wilds of Utah, but lost it on pg. 268, when Elizabeth met with Jody and Alice, after seeing Rosie at rehab camp. James had recently adopted a dog, although Elizabeth had been against the idea, as discussed earlier in the book (is this James breaking out?). The dog is named Ichabod and when the two girls come to see Elizabeth, they spend time playing with Ichabod in the living room. Then Elizabeth gives her lecture, telling them: "It goes without saying that if you ever give Rosie drugs again, I will so rat you out. I will call every college that has taken you, and say you are a pusher - and I will hurt Ichabod," she said, and both girls screamed in protest." That did it for me - threatening girls she really doesn't know very well, threatening them with harming a dog she really didn't want, and these girls, who have just met the dog, "scream in protest"?
I found the dialogue unreal and not always believable; Elizabeth is very self-centered, and James is just crawling around in the background, rarely appearing unless he wants to "borrow" some person's sayings or writings. I guess that really annoyed me - his always asking: "Can I use that?" Hey, James, get your own words !
on July 17, 2011
This book was a wonderful read for me. I went to high school in a similarly affluent area to Marin County, and the scene Lamott describes with the drugs and parties was right on. She also captured how teenagers, especially girls, bond with each other as they struggle to become independent from their parents, creating their own extended families. The tension between Rosie and her parents, their desire to believe her as she lies and manipulates them, was completely believable. Rosie is a "good girl" who thinks she totally has it together and will not go down in flames like some of her peers, but of course she is too immature and self-centered to understand how her actions are affecting her and her future. James and Elizabeth are loving and caring parents who are drawn in by the Rosie show while suspecting all is not as it appears, but have a hard time actually gathering the evidence as they try to preserve a shred a family harmony. They are not clueless parents, they are just way out of their depth and cannot believe the dark forces that steal away so many teenagers is at their front door. I will be giving this book to a few of my friends who have girls who are approaching puberty. I would love to give this book to my own mother, but I think it may give her unpleasant flashbacks to my teenage years.
on July 7, 2010
I really like Annie Lamott's non-fiction, and Bird by Bird is one of my favorite "writing tips" books - so although it took me a while to get around to it, I was curious to read her fiction. Aaaaaand, I was pretty disappointed.
This book is the third in a series, which I didn't realize when I picked it up, but that didn't affect the storyline or characters (not knowing earlier info, that is). Short summary: the trials & tribulations of a family in Marin (wealthy county north of SF) - recovering alcoholic mom, struggling writer stepdad, and teenage Rosie, formerly an overachieving prep who gets into drugs and parties pretty much because she's a teenager and growing up in Marin with a stepdad is lame and she's looking for some thrills. The parents find out and freak out and over-dramatize every little thing, trying to figure out how to "fix" Rosie.
The story is good because it's real life. But the characters are all very unlikeable and unsympathetically rendered. The mother is an anxiety-ridden nutcase who doesn't have a clue about the world around her - I honestly felt like she was about 80 years old, or someone who grew up in a cave, when she's really supposed to be not even 50. She comes across as unbelievably naive, sheltered, and conservative, which didn't ring true at all. And then she reads Rosie's journal and picks through her stuff and then wonders why Rosie can't trust her. As a reader, I can't trust her!
The stepdad locks himself away writing essays for NPR and comes across as a stereotypical smug liberal.
I feel the worst for Rosie, because it sounds super-boring growing up in her little town, being made to volunteer at her mother's friend's new age church. But even she doesn't win much sympathy because she's also a manipulative little bitch.
And then, just to confuse the reader emotionally, Lamott throws in OMGbutIloveyou! scenes full of huge bear hugs and entangled limbs and - this is weird - people are always sniffing each other. I mean it. The mom is always sniffing her daughter; her daughter is always smelling her friends. It's weird.
My final gripe is that Lamott slips into each character's voice sometimes, I guess to make certain scenes more "authentic" - but when she gets into Rosie's voice, it's embarrassingly bad. I mean, I was looking over my shoulder to see if anyone saw what I just read - that bad. I feel like she did her "rave" and drugs research on some archived usenet forums from 1995. Or like she was writing a script to an After School Special. "And then we totally smoked some killer dope but the cops were groovy about it." REALLY? It would be one thing if she was writing like this ironically, but it's straightforward and, well, embarrassing to read.
I think when she writes about her own life, she really gets it right. But this novel was pretty bad and I won't be revisiting her fiction, like, totally.
In a novel bursting out of its seams with little moments, Anne Lamott continues the chronicle of anxious, recovering alcoholic mother Elizabeth and force of nature daughter Rosie in Imperfect Birds. And oh, what a wallop some of those little moments carry.
Such as the time Elizabeth finds pills in her daughter's jeans and rationalizes their existence. After all, she's a good kid. She's tried cocaine, done a little pot and booze, and is sexually active. The cocaine "upsets" Elizabeth, but Rosie is a good kid.
Hold on. That's a good kid? Whose behavior doesn't scream trouble at her overprotective mother? After all, Elizabeth is a woman who sits at home days while the others are gone and imagines fatal accidents happening to her loved ones.
It's times like that which may make the reader feel like Margaret Mead reading someone else's field notes. Mother, daughter and longtime stepfather James, and their best friends Rae and Lank, live in an idyllic northern California community that's big on organics, good causes, nondenominational churches, flavored coffee drinks and baked goods. All the adults have pasts and all the kids are developing them. Most spend their time seeking drugs and sex because, like, they can't handle it.
The community Anne Lamott has created feels both homey and exotic. Going by authorial tone, there is no doubt it's a place she feels at home. But as precious as it is, something must be missing because Rosie is seeking something, anything, to keep up with what her friends are doing. There's little sense of why she feels compelled to try the risky behaviors, unless her addictive personality being inherited from her mother is factored in. But her friends are doing the same thing. They're all trying as many drugs, as much alcohol and as many sexual partners as they can. Rosie would like to add a teacher to her tally.
Still, exploring why Rosie has gone this route isn't the focus of the novel, although there are portions where an omniscent look at her interior thoughts are recorded. Imperfect Birds isn't quite Elizabeth's story either, because she really doesn't change during the story. She's an anxious recovering alcoholic at the beginning of the story and the same at the end.
Perhaps it's best to say this novel isn't about a main character, but instead is the chronicle of how a relationship is assumed to be close and yet veers close to the edge of an emotional abyss. Even with clear evidence, Elizabeth refuses to acknowledge Rosie is in serious trouble. As things escalate, Elizabeth buys home testing kits that Rosie easily can pass with a bit of trickery. And Elizabeth keeps trying to convince herself and James that things are all right. That Rosie is a good kid. No matter who she's having sex with, or wants to have sex with. No matter how she disappears at night. No matter what pills she's popping and what she's washing them down with. No matter how she's not only lying to Elizabeth and James, but to herself.
The small moments that convey this growing crisis often sounds more like an NPR column. Which is appropriate, because James gets a new gig as an NPR columnist and minor local celebrity. The smugness is nearly palpable. But almost as if she realizes what a reader who isn't Anne Lamott might be feeling, Lamott builds in an episode in which James loses his cool in public, in one of those myriad moments that aggravate anyone's life these days. Although the repercussions don't extend to the main narrative arc of Rosie's spiralling out of control, they are exactly the type of reflection that add depth and compassion to Imperfect Birds.
And it's those small moments that may not quite build into a cohesive whole, but which make Lamott worth reading. And which may make it worth a reader's while to go back to see the beginning of the story of Elizabeth and Rosie in two earlier novels, Rosie and Crooked Little Hearts. And which may make a reader wish it's not another 10 years before Lamott devises another novel to imagine what will happen now that Rosie is an adult.
on September 3, 2011
"Imperfect Birds" is a compelling book about a difficult subject. I can understand why it seems to have upset some readers. I found it the best writing yet from Anne Lamott, with the possible exception of 'Bird by Bird.' She has shed her past tendencies to over-write and over-indulge in showy metaphors that end up distracting from her story.
Here, the writing is lean, honest and strong. Shifting points of view are handled expertly. Lamott does an outstanding job of showing how addiction can hollow a person out and nearly destroy her character. And also, how it affects those around the addict.
There's a great deal of tension and suspense -- what will become of Rosie and her family? -- along with humor and warmth. It kept me engaged to the very end.
Looking forward to Lamott's next book!