Anne Lamott's new novel is not a horror story, but it might read like one to nervous parents. The third installment in a warm, compassionate series about a San Francisco 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 Lamott's earlier novels Rosie and Crooked Little Heart. Rosie, now 17, is heading into her senior year at high school. She's bright and inquisitive, destined for a good college if she earns a scholarship. She's loyal, good with kids, loves her best friends to death.
Still, she fights constantly with her mom, Elizabeth, a recovering alcoholic, and 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 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.
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.
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.