In 2009, this site selected Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel by Audrey Niffenegger as the book of the year. Last year, my selection for book of the year was American Music: A Novel by Jane Mendelsohn. This time I decided to do something different, which is to select the best book I read between January of 2010 and the end of December 2011. It happens to be a book that I read prior to its release, and it was first published in hardbound form on April 6, 2010; re-released as a trade paper book on April 5, 2011.
My personal and subjective choice as the best book of 2010-2011 is Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott. Here is my review.
Imperfect Birds: A Novel by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Press, $15.00, 336 pages)
“I try to write the books I would love to come upon…” Anne Lamott
I love the way Anne Lamott writes. She writes like Anne Tyler (Noah’s Compass, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America) with a professor’s seriousness about life, but a child’s smile. Life scares Lamott but she keeps the bogeyman away by writing about people who are like her, except that maybe they have just a bit more courage. Or maybe they don’t.
Imperfect Birds is a novel about a family, about mother Elizabeth Ferguson, her second husband James and her daughter Rosie, a senior in high school in Marin County. Elizabeth and James worship Rosie as they simultaneously count the days until she’ll leave for college so that they can stop worrying about her. “…life with most teenagers was like having a low-grade bladder infection. It hurt but you had to tough it out.”
Rosie’s been a straight-A student until, as a 17-year-old senior, she begins getting Bs in even her best subjects. That would not be much of a disappointment for other students, but there’s a reason she’s coming undone. She’s using drugs, of almost every variety, to the point where even her extremely forgiving mother can no longer ignore what’s happening. “…(Elizabeth) had a conviction now that when she thought something was going on, it was.” This also means that a mother’s worst fears are coming true: “I was afraid of how doomed you would be as a parent.”
“Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.” Rumi
The title, of course, refers to imperfect people – people who have lost the ability to fly straight. Elizabeth is too forgiving of her daughter’s faults for too long. James is too judgmental and too quick to prescribe a harsh remedy for his stepdaughter’s problems. Rosie, who lost her father to cancer years before, is young and wants to enjoy life until… Until she finds that her drug abuse has left her dreamless and with a heart “like a dead little animal.”
Rosie also wants to be loved by someone other than her mother and step-father, which is why she creates fantasies about one of her male instructors and later becomes involved with someone older. Eventually a decision has to be made… Will Rosie’s parents save Rosie from herself or will they step aside and let her self-destruct before her life even really begins?
If this was the work of a less-talented writer, the reader might be tempted to take a guess at the ending and put the book down prematurely. But Lamott is one of the best writers we have – about this there can be little doubt. So this story feels like a gift – one to be savored and treasured – and will be appreciated by any reader who does not make a claim to perfection in his or her own life.
A pre-publication review copy was received from the publisher. “Powerful and painfully honest… Lamott’s observations are pitch-perfect.” The New York Times