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Imperfect Birds

Anne Lamott’s latest reconvenes the characters of two earlier novels in a story of middle-class drug and alcohol abuse.

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Imperfect Birds
By Anne Lamott
Riverhead
288 pp., $25.95

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Fans of Anne Lamott – and they are legion – will be delighted to hear a favorite author’s voice in her latest novel, Imperfect Birds. Unfortunately, all the characters have Lamott’s voice. As a work of fiction, the book suffers from too much of a single note, even if that note often rings with Lamott’s wisdom and humor.

“Imperfect Birds” reconvenes the characters in two previous novels, “Rosie” and “Crooked Little Heart.” More than 20 years have passed, and widowed Elizabeth and her second husband, James, are now nearing their 50s. They’re raising Elizabeth’s 17-year-old daughter, Rosie, in a bucolic town near the San Francisco Bay, where no one seems to work in an office and everyone goes to AA.

Trouble in paradise is established in Chapter 1, when Rosie fails to show up on time for a shopping spree with her parents. Elizabeth’s mind wanders. Her thoughts extend to her and James’s aging bodies – “they had problems now in areas where they hardly used to have areas” – and to the disturbing information she uncovered in her daughter’s diary: “She had had to do Lamaze” after reading about her daughter’s sexual activity. The one-liners are funny, but they don’t push the story forward.

Eventually Rosie shows up, breathless and full of apologies. Elizabeth and James relent. The rest of the book follows this same pattern: a problem is introduced, the characters mull, and the issue is diffused without being resolved. Admittedly, this pattern might be called “life”; however, in a novel, it can be unsatisfying and shaggy.

As with many of Lamott’s books, the theme of “Imperfect Birds” is the temptation to self-medicate. Elizabeth, a recovering alcoholic, can’t quite stay on the wagon. Rosie is smuggling Valium in her designer jeans and getting high on stevia, ’shrooms, and Ectasy. Since the point of view shifts between Elizabeth and Rosie, the reader is not surprised by Rosie’s drug habits. Elizabeth shouldn’t be surprised either, since Rosie confesses all in her diary. Yet, Elizabeth turns a blind eye. Instead of confronting the problem she fusses and frets, throwing her energy into editing her husband’s radio essays for National Public Radio and making organic meals, whose menus are often described on the page. Relieved of suspense, the narration concerns itself mainly with ruminations about addiction, adolescence, and the possibility of God.

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