Riverhead Books: 274 pp., $25.95
From the very first line of the very first page, Anne Lamott defines what's at stake in her new novel, "Imperfect Birds": "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 house, or jail. Once a year a child from the county of Marin jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge."
The characters who will confront these evils in the subsequent pages are already known to followers of Lamott's work. The 1983 novel "Rosie" introduced readers to the widow Elizabeth Ferguson and her precocious, beautiful daughter Rosie. Lamott continued their story in the 1997 follow-up, "Crooked Little Heart."
Struggles with alcoholism, remarriage, death, grief and self-destruction have all been part of their journey, but you don't need to know that to fall into the pages of "Imperfect Birds." Lamott seamlessly weaves the necessary back story into the present novel, in which we find Elizabeth managing to keep sober despite a recent "slip," still married to writer husband James and still best friends with arty, spiritual Rae and her husband, Lank.
And then there is Rosie. Now 17, she is still as beautiful, smart and full of promise as the child whom readers met in the other two novels. Rosie's also now a liar, a secret drug addict, a manipulator par excellence and a haughty ingrate.
What drives this novel is how Elizabeth and James confront -- or don't -- the paradox of the Rosie they love with the Rosie they want to strangle. Each new clue of Rosie's descent into drugs and sex sends Elizabeth into a morass of doubt -- has her own struggle with alcoholism led to this? Should she share everything with her husband, and if she doesn't what will be the consequences to their marriage?
Elizabeth can't bring herself to heed the warning of her friend Lank, who's a high school teacher. "You are the sun," he tells her over the phone. "The child is merely a moon. A moon. She has no light of her own, no income, no car. She is a satellite. Her judgment is frequently poor, and she is mean. She is South Africa before the revolution, cruel and crazy. Divest! Divest!"
It won't surprise fans of Lamott's work to hear that in this book, as in so many of her others, her fine-tuned ear for dialogue and her flawless eye for the perfect, telling detail are in high gear. With the authority of an anthropologist, Lamott renders the very current world of what it is to be an upper middle-class, progressive parent in a place like the Bay Area. She's practically the Margaret Mead of the NPR-listening, sweat-lodge-going, mint-tea-drinking, art-house-movie-watching, Alcoholics Anonymous-attending, Schubert- and Bach-listening, vegan-dinner-eating, Indian-smock-wearing world.
It is compelling to see characters engaged not only in the familiar struggle of parenting as perfectly as they can amid their own imperfections but also with the complicating demon of drug and alcohol addiction. Many readers will recognize the problems faced if not by themselves then by friends or family in the world of "Imperfect Birds."
Yet there lies both the success of "Imperfect Birds" and its biggest failure: In reflecting back to readers the conventions of their world, the context itself isn't examined but rather taken as a norm. A bird doesn't know air, a fish doesn't know water, and a Marin County trust-funder like Elizabeth doesn't think to contemplate the nature of those evils talked about in the first line of the book or ponder whether they could find a source anywhere in her groovy world. The closest she comes is quoting Rumi, who gives the book its title with his saying: "Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird."
In her nonfiction, Lamott has written extensively with freshness and insight about her own travails with addiction and the search for spirituality and meaning in life. In this fictional world, however, those same topics appear two-dimensional, handled by rote. Characters tell each other things like "work your program" without any contemplation of what that expression, used in 12-step programs, might actually mean. Without that, it's no more resonant on the page than a cliché would be.
"Imperfect Birds" contains a richly populated world of believable, understandable people, places and situations that are as clear as what you see on HDTV. Ironically, though, the ultimate experience of the novel is summed up in a line of dialogue toward the end, when Elizabeth comments on a topic to be Googled: "Isn't it wild, how you can find out so much, yet know so little?"
Dunn is the author of several books and an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.