“The Healing Power of Truth, Love and Belief”
A Review of
By Anne Lamott.
Reviewed by Jeni Newswanger-Smith.
Hardback: Riverhead, 2010.
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There is some kind of joy, familiarity, recognition, when you pick up a new book with characters you’ve already known, and loved. After reading the first few pages of Anne Lamott’s newest novel Imperfect Birds I found myself sinking comfortably into her familiar writing style, and reconnecting with familiar characters. There isn’t any good way to describe that particular feeling, except to say it feels a bit like coming home after a long absence. However, just like those homecomings can sometimes give way to tensions, I was not reading too long before I was angry and frustrated with what these characters were doing to themselves and each other. By the climax of the book I was ready for an intense intervention, or at least a chance to kick their asses.
Elizabeth, James and Rosie, familiar characters from two previous books (Rosie and Crooked Little Heart), are the center of Lamott’s newest novel. Rosie is beautiful, admired, athletically talented, smart. She has good friends and the adults that surround her expect future excellence. But those things are only part of who Rosie is. She has also become a rabid drug user, willing to sleep with whomever will feed her need, rationalizing stealing prescriptions, using whatever will get her high, even sniffing rubber cement. She’s become an efficient liar, a manipulator extraordinaire. As Rosie’s addiction becomes unavoidable, James and Elizabeth realize how much their moods, home life, friendships –their entire lives, in fact– hinge on Rosie’s moods. For anyone familiar with teenagers, this will not sound unusual–as teens grow up and away from us, they do so noisily, sometimes angrily and usually with some kind of violence. Imagine throwing drugs and reckless sex into the mix and it’s an even angrier, noisier and uglier time.
Lamott’s book takes place in a smallish California town where the local high school is overwhelmed by kids who use drugs and abuse alcohol on a regular basis. There are countless kids coming and going into rehab, nearly all failing at sobriety within a week of returning to school. These kids are stuck in a sort of abyss of drug addiction and abuse. They all claim to want to grow up and move away –Rosie looks down on the kids who stick around and attend a local college– yet each of them continue to make incredibly destructive choices.
Elizabeth, a recovering alcoholic, is sometimes unsympathetic. Neurotic in her fear for her child, she alienates her even further. She makes and breaks promises both to her husband and her child because she’s put herself in the middle. Elizabeth is frightened to death that Rosie will never make it to 18; she fights hysteria nearly every time a siren goes off, she has visions of all the ways Rosie could be lost to her. She imagines her husband is having an affair. She’s terrified of being alone. James and Rosie have often been buffeted by her life choices, forced to do whatever will keep Elizabeth sober and mostly functional.
Having dealt in the past with Elizabeth’s alcoholism and relapses, both Elizabeth and James are forced to see through the smooth lies and manipulation of their 17 year old daughter, Rosie, and face that she, too, is an addict and that her addiction is quickly driving her insane. The slowness of this realization is frustrating. The reader is privy to both Rosie and Elizabeth’s thoughts and is aware long before the parents of the child’s betrayals. Every time Elizabeth sighs with relief, falling for one of Rosie’s lies, the reader wants to shake her awake.
The parents, Elizabeth mostly, continually enable Rosie’s destructive behavior –believe her over and over — even right after being caught in a lie. It’s hard to believe that any mother would allow herself to be so snowed by her daughter, despite the slickness with which most addicts lie. Also, this is where Elizabeth’s own survival techniques come into play. So desperate to keep herself sane, she refuses to see what might push her over the edge. She berates herself for spying or snooping into her daughters things, but Rosie needs her to do it, she needs her mother to pull her from the abyss.
Forcing themselves to make tough choices in order to save their daughter also helps Elizabeth and James to save themselves. One of the best moments in the book, occurring after Rosie is finally shipped off to rehab is when Elizabeth acknowledges this to herself: “On the sixth morning, Elizabeth first noticed that it was sort of lovely with Rosie gone…’Call me crazy, but I love not having someone endlessly challenging me, and making me feel like a crazy shit all the time.’ Elizabeth looked around the car with wonder. ‘I’m pretty sold on that.’”
An intense, emotional book, Imperfect Birds takes a realistic look at the devestation addiction has on a family. The book begins with Elizabeth thinking that her family “ had apparently dodged a bullet when it came to drugs” and ends with hope of rehabilitaion. There is so much truth in Lamott’s tale –hard truths, and scary truths for those of us who have teenagers in our futures. Lamott’s writing, as usual, is humorous and blunt, spiritual and crass. She captures Rosie’s blunted blossoming as well as the comfortable, well fitted marriage of her parents. Sometimes the crassness is a bit cringe-worthy, but the truthfulness with which Lamott shares the lives of her characters is never compromised. This is why her books are worth reading. Lamott’s world revolves around the healing power of truth, love, and belief.