Fragile Birds

Anne Lamott, Imperfect birds, Crawley WA: UWA Publications, 2010.
Paperback, 278 pages ISBN 9781742580975. RRP $32.95

Reviewed by Ted Witham

When Elizabeth Ferguson was pregnant with Rosie, she was afraid how doomed she would be as a parent. Imperfect Birds illustrates that doom.

Imperfect Birds is the third novel in Anne Lamott’s series on the Ferguson family: Elizabeth, fragile and alcoholic, clever, athletic Rosie, now 17, and writer James, whom Elizabeth married after the death of her first husband.

However, this is the first of the series to be published in Australia, and the first that I have read. In early parts of the book, I found myself lost among the cast.

I usually read thrillers and crime with tight plotting. The plot of Imperfect Birds meanders: Rosie and her two close girl-friends fall more and more deeply into addiction, while Rosie’s deceptions confuse her mother. Rosie falls in love with her science teacher, so when that relationship ends in disillusion, she attaches herself to another slightly older man, seduced by his sophistication and access to drugs.

The novel climaxes with Rosie’s parents sending her on a ‘tough love’ wilderness program in the depths of the Utah winter. This process shakes Rosie into seeing clearly her parents’ love, even though she can see their flaws.

To apply tension to this plot, Lamott cuts judiciously between points of view, mainly those of Elizabeth and Rosie. Lamott gets inside the heads of mother and daughter and stays there. Lamott describes writer James’ techniques of eavesdropping teenagers to record their idiom. Is this Lamott’s own secret to such accurate rendering of the thoughts and speech patterns of Rosie and her friends? I was gripped by the quality of Lamott’s writing. Lamott’s description of the Parkade where the Landsdale teenagers gather is a compelling mix of boredom and danger.

Literary allusions are scattered through the novel, like Rumi’s “Each person has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect birds,” from which the title is taken. Prominent use is made of Rilke to deepen insights.

Imperfect Birds is a smart and generous depiction of growing up in contemporary US and parents’ dilemmas with these adolescent children.

Published in Studio: A journal of Christians writing, No. 124, June 2012.


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