Anne Lamott has never been shy about letting readers in on her struggles. A partial list of the trials she’s detailed in her writing includes alcoholism, drug abuse, bulimia, the death of loved ones, writer’s block, postpartum exhaustion and her furious opposition to the administration of George W. Bush.
Her engrossing new novel, Imperfect Birds, centers on one of the most harrowing challenges of all—raising a teenager. The third novel in a trilogy that also includes Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, the book begins four years after the latter title ends. Rosie, a precocious adolescent the last time we saw her, is now a volatile 17-year-old whose behavior thrusts her mother, Elizabeth, into a near-constant state of hurt and worry. It’s a poignant family story, at times heartbreaking, but ultimately uplifting.
Though Imperfect Birds is fiction and far from autobiographical, like all of Lamott’s work, it reflects the author’s real-life experiences. “There are definitely years that you don’t love when you’re the mother of a teenager, when they’re very mouthy and erratic,” the author says by phone from her home in California. Her son, Sam—an infant when Lamott introduced him to readers in Operating Instructions, her memoir about becoming a parent for the first time as a single 35-year-old—is now 20, with a son of his own. Though thrilled with how Sam has turned out (more on that later), Lamott refuses to take credit.
“You just kind of groan with the exhaustion of having made so many mistakes and just being aware of it and what you should have done or shouldn’t have done,” she says. “But Sam always had a very deep sweetness and I was always banking on that, that this would see us through.”
Which brings us to the paradox at the heart of Lamott’s appeal. Readers look to this author of six nonfiction books, six novels and numerous columns as a wise, funny and compassionate guide to exploring a variety of subjects (her 1994 title, Bird by Bird, is still one of the best books about writing). Devoutly Christian and ferociously liberal, she’s especially fearless when tackling those most touchy of issues, religion and politics, in books such as Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. But, as she constantly reminds us, she doesn’t have all the answers. She has questions. And fears. And faults. And an endless supply of ways to screw up. Yet somehow it all works out OK. Sometimes, it works out much, much better than OK.
It’s not surprising, then, that Lamott fills her latest novel with characters grasping for their own answers. Rosie is smart, beautiful, athletic and seriously into drugs. She’s not picky; pretty much any intoxicant will do: weed, cocaine, prescription pills—in a pinch, cough syrup. Elizabeth wavers between denial and increasingly desperate attempts to rescue her daughter.
Embedded in the poignant family story is a wake-up call for parents: “There are so many evils that pull on our children,” Lamott writes in the novel’s opening lines. “Even in the mellow town of Lansdale, where it is easy to see only beauty and decency, a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses or jail.”
The book’s setting is a stand-in for Fairfax, the Marin County town where the author has lived for years (she grew up in nearby Tiburon). “We do lose kids pretty routinely to accidents and overdoses, way more than you’d think, and so that really weighs on my mind,” she says.
While the substance abuse in Imperfect Birds is scary, nearly as bad are Rosie’s constant lies and ever-changing personality. She’s affectionate one minute, then furious, then scornful, forcing her mother onto a harrowing emotional rollercoaster Lamott thinks many parents will recognize.
“The person you love most in the world, the sweet, consistent person that you love with a lot of love coming back for a lot of years is suddenly a stranger,” Lamott says.
With a narrative that alternates between Rosie’s and Elizabeth’s points of view, Lamott gives readers a fascinating peek into the inner contradictions driving the teenager’s outwardly baffling behavior—the anger, vulnerabilities and desires warring against a sincere wish to do the right thing.
Elizabeth battles her own demons—she has a history of alcoholism and depression—and wrestles with how honest to be with her husband, James, about his stepdaughter’s problems. Though Elizabeth deeply loves her daughter, Rosie can drive her to the edge, as in this passage where the teen lashes out at her mother:
“‘Stop spying on me! You’re the one going crazy—call your shrink.’ And it was the disgusted sneer more than the words that made Elizabeth erupt.
“‘How dare you! I’m not a liar, or cruel! You’re a spoiled little shit.’ She got to her feet, hating herself and her child. . . . [Elizabeth] locked herself in the bathroom and cried silently until she was raw.”
The scene is reminiscent of a column Lamott wrote for Salon in 2006, “My son, the stranger.” In it, she tells of slapping 16-year-old Sam during an argument and then driving around, sobbing heavily. The column ends on a hopeful note, though nothing is resolved. Lamott gives the characters in Imperfect Birds a similarly upbeat ending, as Elizabeth finds the strength to make the excruciating decision that will save her daughter.
As for Lamott, she gets to savor the fact that Sam is safely past his teen years. “He is just the most marvelous, amazing guy in the world,” she says. She also describes him as “brilliant” and “very spiritual.” Living in San Francisco with his girlfriend, Amy, and their baby, Jax, he is studying industrial design at the Academy of Art University. Lamott admits her heart sank when 19-year-old Sam told her he was becoming a father. But as it turns out, the young family is doing just great.
“Grandparents really are very happy people,” Lamott says. “You get unbelievable love and wonder for three hours. And then they leave and you can lie back on the couch and read The New Yorker. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Karen Holt writes frequently about books and authors for O, The Oprah Magazine, Essence and other publications.