BOOK REVIEW: Lying teenager heads down road to ruin

By By Connie Ogle/The Miami Herald (MCT)

Anne Lamott’s new novel is not a horror story, but it might read as if it were to nervous parents. The third installment in a warm, compassionate series about a cobbled-together Bay Area family, the often nightmarish Imperfect Birds details with frightening accuracy the ease with which teenagers can be derailed and how quickly adults believe the lies of the children they love.

The “imperfect birds” of the title are the characters from Rosie and Crooked Little Heart (aren’t we all equally imperfect?). Rosie, now 17, is heading into her senior year at high school. She doesn’t play tennis anymore, but she’s bright and inquisitive, destined for a good college if she earns a scholarship. She’s got a couple of part-time summer jobs lined up. She’s loyal, good with kids, loves her best friends to death.

Still, she fights constantly with her mom Elizabeth, a recovering alcoholic, and her stepfather James, over the usual things: curfews, freedom, the rolling papers found hidden in a purse, the occasional whiff of pot on her clothes. Elizabeth rarely gets off the emotional seesaw common to all parents. “On good days, when everyone got along, Elizabeth believed she’d die when Rosie left, keen forever like an Irish fisherman’s widow. On bad days, she felt like a prisoner at the Level 1 Reception Area in Pelican Bay, marking off days on the prison wall until Rosie’s graduation.”

All pretty standard stuff, but Rosie’s drug use isn’t the casual experimentation she claims, and as the summer wears on, the lies grow. Desperate to stay in her daughter’s mercurial good graces, Elizabeth tries to tell herself that Rosie isn’t in real trouble – but she knows too intimately the signs of addiction.

Lamott In her nonfiction book Operating Instructions, Lamott humorously chronicled the first year of her son’s life. Imperfect Birds offers the flip side of that story. You thought the diapers and the colic and the wailing were hard? Just wait.

But there is no jokey tone here, only a scary reality in which kids get killed driving drunk or quit college to hang around town partying with friends. And Lamott, while adept at conveying a parent’s conflicting emotions, also renders Rosie’s teenage world (bffs, school, drugs, booze, sex) with troubling precision.

Lamott, also author of a series of charming books of essays – Traveling Mercies, Plan B, Grace (Eventually) – infuses Imperfect Birds with the sensibilities found in her nonfiction: a funky, hippie vibe; a gracious, nonjudgmental religious decency. But trying to be a good citizen of the planet and loving Jesus do not prevent heartache.

Elizabeth thinks of a favorite line by the poet Rumi: ” ‘Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.’ It was a beautiful line but a lousy system if true, as it offered only the most meager support.” So where do we look for help when our lives fall apart? The usual places: friends, family, faith. In our imperfection, they are all we have, and they have to be enough.

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