Throughout this admirable novel, Lamott's observations are pitch perfectlikably, even brutally unsentimental, not just about parental hopes and anxieties but about the particular and touching fragility of simply being a teenager. I blushed at the description of the mother, seen through her daughter's eyes…And you ache with the truth of Elizabeth's visceral longing for her strong, beautiful, frightening daughter…Lamott nearly always tempers her understandable evangelism with honesty and humor. Laughter redeems this book, and so does the fact that it's ultimately not just a novel about deception and drugs but about the great big bloody battle of love and sorrow that is parenthood.
The New York Times
The vibrant, wilful California girl at the center of two earlier Lamott novels (Rosie and Crooked Little Heart) is back, and this time Rosie Ferguson has her mom and stepdad seriously worried. A straight-A beauty, she's started lying and dabbling in drugs-or maybe more than dabbling, since her best friend was just shipped off to rehab. Lamott, as famous for her spiritual writings as for her fiction, goes easy on the religion here, but there's plenty of Marin County therapy speak. ("You need to tell me all of your unsaids, Elizabeth," a friend tells Rosie's mother straight-facedly. "You've been using your sincereness in counterfeit ways.") The groovy talk nearly swamps the story, but Rosie and her appealing family keep you reading. And Lamott nicely captures a dilemma that will resonate with any parent of teens. "You had to let people sink or swim," Elizabeth muses, "but ... how could you ask a mother to let her child sink?"
ALL GROWN UP
Did Lamott draw on life with son Sam for her new book? She detailed his first year in her memoir Operating Instructions, but says it was her own youth that informed Birds. Now 20, Sam has a son of his own (Jax).
The perspective switches back and forth from Rosie's self-destructive behavior to Elizabeth's panicked efforts to figure out what's going wrong. But Lamott remains impressively dispassionate, recording Rosie's descent without a hint of Go Ask Alice preachiness. Instead, she allows the slow burn of this tragedy to smolder. It's a startlingly honest depiction of middle-class teenage life in all its baffling contradictions…This is a mature, thoughtful novel about an all-too-common family crisis, and in typical Lamott fashion, it doesn't ignore the pain or exalt in despair. The salvation she offers in these pages is hard-won.
The Washington Post
Rosie Ferguson, the young heroine of Lamott’s Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, almost succumbs to the drug culture in this unsparing look at teenagers and parents who walk the tightrope between all-encompassing love and impotent fury. The former tennis star is now a straight-A high school senior, living with her mother, Elizabeth, and stepfather, James, in Marin County. Elizabeth, still susceptible to emotional breakdowns and fighting lapses into alcoholism, is acutely aware of Rosie’s vulnerability, and she and James are vigilant in watching Rosie’s behavior, knowing, as everyone does, that drug deals go down in the town’s central square, and that the kids are drinking, sexually active, and aligned against their parents. Lamott captures this gestalt with her distinctive mixture of warmth, humor, and sensitivity to volatile emotional equilibrium, going laser-sharp into teen mindsets: the craving for secrecy and excitement, the thrill of flaunting the law and parental rules. Eventually forced to confront Rosie’s peril and its potentially marriage-destroying power, Elizabeth and James take decisive action and risk their family. Straddling a line between heartwarming and heartbreaking, this novel is Lamott at her most witty, observant, and psychologically astute. (Apr.)
It is sobering to think that Rosie Ferguson is your typical teenage girl. On one hand, she's in the throes of her senior year in high school: concerned with body image and boyfriends, BFFs and boredom, and, of course, the daily trauma of living with parents who are so hopelessly, well, hopeless. On the other hand, she is an adept addict who's never met a substance she wouldn't abuse or a male she wouldn't seduce. Juggling these two worlds demands bigger and more frequent scores, and more facile lies, while Rosie's parents, recovering alcoholic Elizabeth and workaholic stepfather James, are reluctant to enforce even the lamest disciplinary rules for fear of losing Rosie's love-until one night when her world comes crashing down, and Elizabeth and James have no choice but to send Rosie to a wilderness rehab program. Reprising characters from her previous novels, Rosie (1997) and Crooked Little Heart (1998), Lamott intuitively taps into the teenage drug culture to create a vivid, unsettling portrait of a family in crisis. As she eschews the cunning one-liners and wry observations that had become her signature stock-in-trade, Lamott produces her most stylistically mature and thematically circumspect novel to date.
Lamott returns to some of her favorite characters in this exploration of raising a teenager in today's difficult world. In Rosie, Rosie was a child dealing with her mother's alcoholism. In Crooked Little Heart, she was a 13-year-old tennis champion beginning to understand boys, self-doubt, and the continued stress with her mother. In this novel, Rosie is now 17, and while she holds it together in school, her hidden life is all about drugs and alcohol. Since Rosie masks it so well, her mother, Elizabeth, now a recovered alcoholic, tries to give her room to experiment. But once the bottom falls out, Elizabeth realizes the consequences of her misplaced trust. Lamott covers faith and its part in life and personal struggles—a topic that's close to her heart and nicely portrayed through Elizabeth's best friend, the spiritual Rae. VERDICT This is a deft, moving look at an extremely fragile and codependent mother-daughter relationship and how an out-of-control teenager affects a life, a friendship, and a marriage. Lamott is consistently wonderful with this type of novel, and once again she does not disappoint. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/09.]—Beth Gibbs, Davidson, NC
Lamott, best known for nonfiction, including popular books on writing (Bird by Bird, 1994) and spirituality (Traveling Mercies, 1999), returns to the novel with a sequel of sorts to one of her earliest and best, Rosie (1983). A child in that novel with an alcoholic mother, Rosie is now 17 and her mother, Elizabeth, is generally sober through Alcoholics Anonymous, though not without the occasional relapse. More beautiful than she knows, desperate to fit in and find love, Rosie insists to her mother, "I'm a good kid, Mom." But as a friend suggests, "Even the good kids break your heart." Rosie has yet to succumb to the addictions, pregnancies, suicide attempts and car crashes so common among the "good kids" in this California coastal community, but she has frequently been caught in lies and may even have trouble facing the truth about herself. She remains a source of tension between Elizabeth and James, Rosie's stepfather, who favors more of a tough-love approach than the unconditional love Elizabeth is more likely to bestow. Yet Rosie's deceptions threaten Elizabeth's sobriety, while the weakness of Rosie's mother and the death of her father have left Rosie with an emptiness to fill. Lamott alternates between the perspectives of Elizabeth and Rosie, and both ring true. As Elizabeth realizes, "Rosie had a secret life now, was putting together her own tribe, finding her identity there, and it was great to see, and it hurt like hell." If only the novel had been able to avoid proclamations such as, "Your whole selfish generation has helped kill this planet!" and facile reflections such as, "it's good to notice that my life is pretty great, even if my mind isn't."We're all imperfect birds, in anovel that sounds a warning note to parents of "good kids," even though some might resist its climactic remedy. In the end, the strengths of central characters and believable complications overcome a tendency toward oracular psychobabble.
Her new novel, Imperfect Birds (Riverhead; 278 pages), functions in reverse, suggesting all the terror of the big picture. It's about Elizabeth and James, liberal do-gooders from Marin County, California (and the subjects of her previous novels Rosie and Crooked Little Heart), and their daughter Rosie. At 17, Rosie is "black-haired, strapping and fabulous" and an academic high achiever, but she does every drug under the sun, including her peers' parentally dispensed Adderall. The book is a stark illustration of deception, denial and parents' desperate desire to stay loved. You emerge from its last bittersweet pages ready to drug-test your Little Leaguer, if that's what it will take to keep him safe. That's extreme, obviously, but Lamott, though a fierce advocate of civil rights and social justice, wouldn't rule it out for teens who seem at risk.
What People are saying about this
Martin Cruz Smith
"This is a hell of a book, tough and wonderful. A heartbreaker and a heart-mender."--(Martin Cruz Smith, author of Gorky Park and The Golden Mile)
From the Publisher
"Heartbreaking and delightful, moving and hopeful, Imperfect Birds reminds us how our children are connected to and independent of us, and that no matter how difficult our struggle is with them, love underlies it all and saves us. This novel captures the deepest, purest, most terrifying experience of parents fearing for their children. With great insight and humor, Anne Lamott shows us what it means these dangerous days to be a parent, what it means to be a child, and what it means to be a family."
-David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy
"This is a hell of a book, tough and wonderful. A heartbreak and a heart- mender."
-Martin Cruz Smith, author of Gorky Park and The Golden Mile
"Heartbreaking and delightful, moving and hopeful, Imperfect Birds reminds us how our children are connected to and independent of us, and that no matter how difficult our struggle is with them, love underlies it all and saves us. This novel captures the deepest, purest, most terrifying experience of parents fearing for their children. With great insight and humor, Anne Lamott shows us what it means these dangerous days to be a parent, what it means to be a child, and what it means to be a family."--(David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy)