Lamott, best known for nonfiction, including popular books on writing (Bird by Bird, 1994) and spirituality (Traveling Mercies, 1999), returns to the novel with a sequel of sorts to one of her earliest and best, Rosie (1983).
A child in that novel with an alcoholic mother, Rosie is now 17 and her mother, Elizabeth, is generally sober through Alcoholics Anonymous, though not without the occasional relapse. More beautiful than she knows, desperate to fit in and find love, Rosie insists to her mother, “I’m a good kid, Mom.” But as a friend suggests, “Even the good kids break your heart.” Rosie has yet to succumb to the addictions, pregnancies, suicide attempts and car crashes so common among the “good kids” in this California coastal community, but she has frequently been caught in lies and may even have trouble facing the truth about herself. She remains a source of tension between Elizabeth and James, Rosie’s stepfather, who favors more of a tough-love approach than the unconditional love Elizabeth is more likely to bestow. Yet Rosie’s deceptions threaten Elizabeth’s sobriety, while the weakness of Rosie’s mother and the death of her father have left Rosie with an emptiness to fill. Lamott alternates between the perspectives of Elizabeth and Rosie, and both ring true. As Elizabeth realizes, “Rosie had a secret life now, was putting together her own tribe, finding her identity there, and it was great to see, and it hurt like hell.” If only the novel had been able to avoid proclamations such as, “Your whole selfish generation has helped kill this planet!” and facile reflections such as, “it’s good to notice that my life is pretty great, even if my mind isn’t.”
We’re all imperfect birds, in a novel that sounds a warning note to parents of “good kids,” even though some might resist its climactic remedy. In the end, the strengths of central characters and believable complications overcome a tendency toward oracular psychobabble.