Blue Shoe

About ten years ago, I read a number of Anne Lamott’s novels. While I love her nonfiction, especially Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions, I didn’t fall quite as madly in love with her fiction. I found the voices of her characters a bit samey, and they all seemed to be wrestling with unlikely problems of their own making. I wanted to give them a good slap. (Little did I know that that’s how I actually feel about 70% of contemporary literary fiction.) The one exception was her novel Crooked Little Heart, about Rosie, a girl under pressure at home and at school who begins to cheat at tennis. It had a few heavy-handed moments, but it also had some real truth to it, and I saw some greatness peeking out. So when I saw Blue Shoe at the library, a 2003 novel of hers I hadn’t read, I decided to give it a try.

Blue Shoe is the story of Mattie Ryder. She’s divorcing her husband, Nicky, and living in her mother’s old and dilapidated house, which has rats in the walls. Her children are showing signs of emotional disturbance from the divorce — acting out, chewing their nails and hands. Her mother is aging rapidly, almost before her eyes. Her best friend is moving away from the Bay area, to live with the woman she’s fallen in love with. Mattie is broke, and heartbroken, and she wants her dead father to rise and fix everything for her.

Instead, she begins to rebuild, one piece at a time. One day, she calls the exterminator, and it’s Daniel she finds on her doorstep: Daniel, who turns out not to have the stomach to kill rats, but who can do odd jobs, and who nestles into their lives with awkwardness and luminous grace. (Daniel, who is married.) One day, she calls her mother’s doctor to schedule an appointment. One day, she paints her daughter’s fingernails, to help her stop biting them to the quick. One day, she asks some questions about her father’s checkered past, and tries to accept the staggering answers.

This isn’t a linear book about self-discovery and healing. It’s a slow, meditative, one-step-forward-two-steps-sideways book that takes about four years to culminate. Nevertheless, I found myself connecting with it better than any novel Lamott has written except Crooked Little Heart. Mattie talks about the impossibility of forgiveness — wanting to throw a rattlesnake at her ex-husband and his new girlfriend. She talks about grief, and new love, and connection. These things take a long time.

This wasn’t a perfect book. Some parts of it were a bit repetitive (maybe partly because it was cyclical and seasonal) and the big reveal about Mattie’s father never really connected with me emotionally. But so many other parts did — Daniel and his wife, Mattie’s brother Al, the agony of putting your mother into a facility when the parent is now a child. It was full of humor and self-deprecation and tenderness. I really enjoyed reading this, and while I’d probably steer someone who was new to Anne Lamott over to the nonfiction section, I’d certainly recommend this to her fans.

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13 Responses to Blue Shoe

  1. The Raven says:

    I first discovered Lamott with Operating Instructions–while I was pregnant. My partner and I read it aloud to each other. And Bird by Bird is my favorite of hers. Both are wonderful–but I agree with you that her fiction does not have quite the same power. I haven’t tried Blue Shoe yet. Your review makes me want to put it on my tbr list…just not at the top…

    • Jenny says:

      I love her nonfiction so much that I just keep trying with her fiction. I liked this one quite a bit, but it will never be a top-ten favorite of mine. Still, I thought it was worth reading.

  2. Teresa says:

    I have the same feeling you do about Lamott’s fiction. It’s not bad, but it just doesn’t stand up to her nonfiction. I read this particular book when it first came out, and while I don’t think I liked it as well as you did, I seem to recall that it had some nice moments.

    • Jenny says:

      For some reason, the relationship with Daniel rang really true to me, and the little weirdnesses of the children also seemed real. There were other parts that were not so great. But it had some very good bits. I’d recommend it with reservations, let’s put it that way. :)

  3. I think I’ll look into Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions– do you recommend one over the other to start with Lamott?

    • Jenny says:

      Bird by Bird is about writing and Operating Instructions is a journal of her son’s first year of life. Both are absolutely transcendent, funny as hell, poignant, marvelous. If one subject matter appeals to you more, try that one!

  4. Jes says:

    I adore Lamott all the way around, but I agree, a lot of why I enjoy her fiction is because I read her nonfic first – with that context, it’s interesting to see how that plays out in the (fictional) real world.

    • Jenny says:

      Hi, Jes! It’s great to see you around here! Good point about enjoying her fiction through the lens of her nonfiction. I can see her alcoholism, her family relationships, her faith, her kid, all kinds of stuff in this book. I like that. It is interesting.

  5. Despite its flaws, this sounds like a great book. I am fairly new to Lamott, having read only one of her books, but I am definitely interested in reading more.

  6. Cori says:

    I’ve only ever read her nonfiction, which I just love. I’ll have to grab one of her novels these days to see how I feel about it. :)

    • Jenny says:

      Try Crooked Little Heart. That’s probably my favorite so far. I’m looking to read Imperfect Birds, which is about the same characters and sounds good.

  7. J.G. says:

    My reaction, too. Bird by Bird is one I reread every few years. I’ve jotted a few choice lines from it in the journal where I collect quotations, too.

    Her fiction, not so much. I guess I like her own voice more than her characters’.

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