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'Imperfect Birds': The Trials And Triumphs Of Teens

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."

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.