Imperfect Birds

In general, I am a much bigger fan of Anne Lamott’s nonfiction than of her fiction. While her nonfiction has spoken to me at many different times of my life and has given me a great deal of help (Operating Instructions genuinely kept me from completely wigging out about my pregnancy), I tend to find her fiction a little bland, the voices a little samey. When I introduce people to Lamott, I use her nonfiction pretty much exclusively.

The exception, though, is her books about Rosie and her broken, grace-filled, catch-as-catch-can family: Rosie, Crooked Little Heart, and now Imperfect Birds. I’ve loved these books, read the first two over and over, and now that there’s a third, I love it too.

Elizabeth, Rosie’s mother, knows vaguely that something is wrong with Rosie. On the surface, everything looks good — Rosie has a 4.2 grade point average, is wonderful with children, has beautiful, funny friends. Her occasional lies, her meanness and mouthiness, her contempt for her mother and stepfather — it could all be much worse, surely, surely. It’s much worse for so many people in town: the kids who live on the streets, the kids who die in car crashes or get AIDS or hep C. At least that’s not Rosie, and she’ll be gone to a good college next fall and give them all some space.

But things have to get worse before they can get better. Rosie’s deep craving for love and connection — filled with any stimulant she can get her hands on, as well as with conversation and sex and touch — has to become desperate. Elizabeth’s fierce need to please her daughter and protect herself from her anger has to come out the other side, so that she can heal her in a lasting way. And the rest of the family, made up of friends and counselors and loved ones, has to watch, in pain and compassion.

To be honest, this was a very scary book to read. Lamott brings a lot of real wisdom and experience (much of it her own) to Rosie’s story, to the hurt that teenagers can cause their parents when they treat them like rather stupid children, to the hurt that parents can cause when they aren’t sure where to make boundaries — and how can anyone be sure? Every word felt true to me, from the struggles of Rosie’s stepfather to write pieces about drug-addicted kids for NPR, to the (frankly hilarious) attempts of Elizabeth and her friend to find clarity in a women’s sweat lodge — I loved all the nooks and crannies where Lamott shows us that people try to hang on, try to find truth and wisdom where there is usually so little to be found.

You don’t have to have read the other books about Rosie to read this one, but I do recommend all three. And this one in particular, full of pain, full of love, full of some kind of groping toward redemption.

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7 Responses to Imperfect Birds

  1. Laurie C says:

    I don’t know if I’ve read those earlier novels by Anne Lamott or not! I’ve read her nonfiction, definitely, except for her latest. I didn’t realize Imperfect Birds followed the same characters’ stories. That’s good to know!

    • Jenny says:

      They’re linked, but they’re not exactly sequels, by which I mean that you don’t have to read them in order. Each book stands well by itself, but they also go well together. I like them better than any other novels I’ve read by Lamott.

  2. Lisa says:

    I’ve only read (and re-read) her non-fiction. These definitely sound like the place to start with her fiction – thanks for the recommendation.

    • Jenny says:

      I really have enjoyed them. I’ve probably read Crooked Little Heart three or maybe even four times. They’re very satisfying.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I feel like you do about the non-fiction being better, and that very definitely includes the first two Rosie novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Aw, well, I think I agree that her nonfiction is also better than the first two Rosie books, and also than this one. But I think I was trying to say that of her fiction, I’ve really enjoyed those two (and only those two.) They stand out to me. And I don’t want to make specious comparisons, either: she’s aiming at something different in her fiction and her nonfiction, don’t you think?

  4. boardinginmyforties says:

    I’ve never read any of her fiction before. I loved Operating Instructions and really related as I was a single mom of a son at the time I read the book. I’ll have to check out her fiction one of these days.

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