'Imperfect Birds': The Trials And Triumphs Of Teens

Teenage Girl walking in the woods
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Imperfect Birds
By Anne Lamott
Hardcover, 288 pages
Riverhead Books
List price: $25.95

Read An Excerpt

For most of us, navigating the Bermuda Triangle of adolescence twice in our lives — first during our own teens, then during our children's — is more than enough. As Anne Lamott writes in her seventh novel, Imperfect Birds, with the trenchant wit that has won her legions of fans: "Life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt, but you had to tough it out."

Reading Lamott's latest installment about her long-running mother-daughter pair, Elizabeth and Rosie Ferguson, as they grapple with multiple A-list issues — addiction, authority, autonomy and approval — may take some readers back where they don't wish to go. But this issue-driven novel will no doubt provide solace to many more.

Rosie is the bright kid who lost her father in a drunken accident at age 4 in Lamott's second novel, Rosie. She resurfaced on the Northern California junior tennis circuit as a 13-year-old being stalked by a possible pedophile in Crooked Little Heart. Now, at 17, she's an A student on the last lap of her marathon to a prestigious college, but she's giving her worried mother and stepfather conniptions over the drugs they gradually realize she's abusing, and the lies they keep catching her in.

Imperfect Birds highlights the anxiety of parenthood in "a world aquiver with menace," as Lamott put it in Crooked Little Heart. She opens with a point-blank declaration few will disagree with: "There are so many evils that pull on our children." And as Lamott dramatizes in this tale of insidious addiction and inadvertent enablement, woe unto the parent not steady enough to set clear boundaries and provide firm guidance.

Like Anna Quindlen, Anne Lamott is beloved for writing down-to-earth personal essays and fiction that dig into the nitty-gritty of faith, addiction, sex, discipline, trust and other domestic issues as if they're hashing it all out with a best friend. Lamott brings insights into alcoholism and depression gleaned from her own struggles: Rosie's stepfather explains that "addiction was like dancing with an 800-pound gorilla: you were done dancing when the gorilla was done." Therefore, "We stay out of the gorilla cage. You don't even go in to clean it."

Anne Lamott i i

Imperfect Birds is Lamott's seventh novel, and the third about Rosie and Elizabeth Ferguson, a mother-daughter pair featured in Lamott's earlier novels, Rosie and Crooked Little Heart. James Hall hide caption

itoggle caption James Hall
Anne Lamott

Imperfect Birds is Lamott's seventh novel, and the third about Rosie and Elizabeth Ferguson, a mother-daughter pair featured in Lamott's earlier novels, Rosie and Crooked Little Heart.

James Hall

Lamott, who has written three books about her Christian faith — Traveling Mercies, Plan B and Grace (Eventually), is refreshingly open-minded and irreverent even in her reverence. She allows her characters their agnosticism, and empathizes equally with Rosie's sneering disdain for her mother's weaknesses and with Elizabeth's addictive need for her daughter's love and approval.

She captures the gut-wrenching dynamic of "mutant teenage behavior," the way Elizabeth swings up and down on "the seesaw of trusting Rosie and then being betrayed," and how hard it is for her to recognize that they need help.

Despite the seriousness of her subject, Lamott still tosses off zingers, including a riff on "the teenage doper equivalent of Chutes and Ladders, or Candy Land," in which you land on "Whirly Head, or Grutty Bedroom, or Pool of Puke." More reassuringly, Lamott's board game is filled with occasionally trite nuggets of comfort or wisdom, including: "Life on Earth is a head-scratcher for anyone who's paying attention."

Lamott pays attention, and tries to make sense of it all.

Excerpt: 'Imperfect Birds'

Imperfect Birds
Imperfect Birds
By Anne Lamott
Hardcover, 288 pages
Riverhead Books
List price: $25.95

Chapter One: The Parkade

There are so many evils that pull on our children. Even in the mellow town of Landsdale, where it is easy to see only beauty and decency, a teenager died nearly every year after a party and kids routinely went from high school to psych wards, halfway houses, or jail. Once a year a child from the county of Marin jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.

Elizabeth Ferguson looked around at the Saturday-morning comings and goings of townspeople, and saw parents who had lost or were losing their kids, kids who had lost or were losing their minds. She and James sat with their coffees and newspaper on the wide steps of the Parkade, which was what everyone in town called the parking bay in the center of town, making it seem a lot more festive than it was. It was a big parking lot that abutted the boulevard that ran from San Quentin, to the east, all the way out to Olema, on the Pacific coast, but several feet higher than the town's original crossroads, so that you had to climb up steps to reach it, and drive slightly downhill to exit. A bean-shaped lot for cars, it was ringed in skinny trees and foliage, lavender rhododendrons whose blooms wouldn't last much longer as spring faded, and geraniums. There was a bus kiosk on the north side, and two weathered sets of concrete steps, the one where Elizabeth and her husband sat reading, another at the far end, across from the movie theater.

She and James were waiting for her daughter, whom they were going to take shopping in town if she ever arrived. Rosie needed notebooks and some summer tops for her last weeks as a junior at the local high school, and shops fanned out below the Parkade, stretching almost to the northern face of Mount Tamalpais. But Rosie was nowhere in sight.

Elizabeth felt large and worried. Even sitting down, she was taller than her husband (and her otherwise dark thick hair was slightly more gray-streaked). But Rosie was taller than either, almost five-eleven, black-haired, strapping and fabulous, except when they wanted to disown her, like now.

James read the paper in vexed silence and Elizabeth sipped her coffee and watched people go about their business. A tidal feeling ebbed and flowed around them, of people on foot, shopping or going back to their cars. You never knew for sure who would be there, someone you'd been missing or were trying to avoid. Two teenage boys took their spots on the bottom steps. Their pose was a flop that said, I've arrived and I'm not moving. Others stepped past them to get to their cars or up to the boulevard. Over by the bus kiosk there was a sense of marketplace transactions among the high school kids — punk, funk, hippie, straight — of intrigue, nonchalance, commerce, boredom, opportunity. On the main street people dropped off DVDs and videos, stopped to chat, ducked into the liquor store, flirted, picked up after their dogs or not, riffled through dresses hanging outside on racks. Elizabeth read the paper over James's shoulder.

'How long are we going to wait?' he asked. 'It's been twenty minutes.'

'Five more?'

'It's like waiting for goddamn Godot.'

Some of the young men converging at the kiosk had cultivated the look of homelessness, but without the inconvenience and hardship: car keys dangled from their belts as they drank four-dollar lattes. Some looked like star athletes, because they were or had been. But you saw a feral, dark energy in some of the young here, of despair, blankness, failure and indirect gazes, ill health, or sometimes, a dangerous raw male potency. The grunge, the piercings, the clothes that deliberately didn't fit, that said, I am the best, I am the worst, the tattoos psychic Band-Aids to cover the wounds.

They were home here, and only here. You could tell by the loose-legged swagger, instead of the back-alley prowl they used at their parents' houses.

From Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott. Copyright 2010 by Anne Lamott. Reprinted by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. All rights reserved.

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