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Imperfect Birds

by Anne Lamott

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott
© Riverhead
Riverhead Books, April 2010

In her new novel, Imperfect Birds, Anne Lamott employs her characteristically laugh-out-loud writing style to explore teenage drug abuse and its consequences. Full of quirky insights and funny moments, Lamott's latest book profiles a husband, a mother and a daughter in the midst of domestic distress. But even this author's humor can't soften the blow of this family's tragedy.

Anne Lamott is the author of several standout nonfiction books such as Grace (Eventually), Bird by Bird, Traveling Mercies, and Operating Instructions. She is also known for her bestselling fiction including Blue Shoe and Rosie. Imperfect Birds, her seventh novel, explores a problem that devastates hundreds of thousands of young people, families, and communities each year.

Fans of Anne Lamott's previous books won't be disappointed to know that Imperfect Birds takes readers back into the lives of some of her most endearing characters. Elizabeth and Rosie, whose earlier lives were central to her books Rosie and Cooked Little Heart, return here as a mother continuing to fight for her sobriety and a teenage daughter who masterfully deceives her parents-and herself-as she cycles through the process of drug abuse, addiction, and recovery.
Raven-haired and long-legged, Rosie Ferguson appears to be a beautiful and accomplished young woman who makes good grades and excels in physics. She's a star tennis player and hangs out with a group of hip, affluent friends in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. It's the summer before their senior year in high school when this story begins, and the Parkade - a parking bay in the center of town - is Lansdale's social center, the place where people go to see and be seen.

Beneath such a glossy veneer, Rosie struggles with self-doubt and tries to balance her nagging need for acceptance from her peers with her desire to please her parents. At the same time, she's also a teenager trying to assert her independence and discover herself. The Parkade, with its dark energy and reputation as a meeting place for druggies, feeds the part of Rosie that's drawn towards rebellion and deceit.

Over the course of the summer, Rosie's drug abuse becomes just as pervasive as her mother's denial. Elizabeth finds pills in the pockets of her daughter's jeans, regularly smells pot and alcohol on her breath, and has to pick her up from the jail after being arrested at a party that gets busted. But she desperately wants to believe that her daughter - who still calls her "Mommy" in her most delightful moments - doesn't have a problem.
Elizabeth's husband James helps her see the extent of Rosie's lies, and the two do their best to construct a unified front against Rosie's rage at their imposition of a strict curfew and regular drug tests. Despite their most valiant efforts, Rosie continues down her own path to destruction, forcing Elizabeth and James make difficult decisions or risk losing their daughter altogether.

Lamott's quick-witted narrator will keep readers afloat in this book, which might otherwise be a downer due to its subject matter. A fun, chatty voice radiates the youthful energy captured in this book, which successfully delves into the curious lives of modern teenagers. But its lightheartedness doesn't prevent the depths of this family's sorrow from seeping through.

Imperfect Birds will likely connect with those who seek to understand today's teens - teachers, parents, and others who may simply find themselves baffled by the behavior of this age bracket. But not being a parent of teenagers or otherwise somehow connected to teenage culture shouldn't preclude anyone from enjoying this book.

"This novel is about how incredibly hard it is to know and communicate the truth," Lamott says in an interview. Imperfect Birds is the kind of story that will remind readers how heart breaking it is to be deceived by loved ones. And it also shows quite poignantly how clinging to an ideal can prevent a person from seeing the tarnished reality of another.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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