Opening “Imperfect Birds” without having read Anne Lamott’s two previous novels featuring these main characters may be a mixed blessing.

You bring no memories of what you liked or disliked about Rosie Ferguson, a 17-year-old California girl, and her alcoholic mother, Elizabeth. (Even those who did read “Rosie” and “Crooked Little Heart” may have no memories of the family, though: Its last appearance was 13 years ago.)

Lamott’s brilliant writing gift is on full display in her seventh novel. She tells a compelling story that keeps you drawn in, even about characters who are mostly unlikable.

Elizabeth and her husband, James, struggle to make ends meet and provide the things that Rosie would like as a product of affluent Marin County, north of San Francisco. It seems the things Rosie likes the most are drugs, which is the backbone of the battle.

With Elizabeth’s own struggles with alcohol behind her, she tries to pay diligent heed to her daughter and any signs she may be dabbling. Yet she blindly excuses and overlooks warning signs — change in attitude, falling grades, increased sullenness.

Parents who read this will want to march straight to their medicine and liquor cabinets and lock up the alcohol, the cough syrup, glue, prescription meds and anything else they think of as Rosie and friends try it all — plus Adderall, mushrooms, cocaine, marijuana, PCP and LSD.

Rose lies to her mother and stepfather (who is the most likeable of the bunch) about what she’s doing, who she’s with, where she’s going and where she’s been. Elizabeth doesn’t work, and struggles with depression and a strong dose of self-pity.

When she does climb out of herself, she proves a capable wife and editorial voice to James, who has landed new, and much-needed work, writing pieces for National Public Radio.

Yet Rosie keeps pulling the wool over Elizabeth’s eyes, cheating on home drug tests and lying about everything until the drug use catches up with her at a church event. Finally, Elizabeth sees the extent of her daughter’s problem. She and James make a decision about Rosie’s future that proves to be a turning point.

Lamott has written about her struggles with alcohol and turns her unflinching eye on drug use and lengths to which people will go to get high. Her descriptions of Rosie sneaking bleach into the urine test, downing cough syrup for a high and stealing prescription pills are stark in their honesty.

Anyone looking for a tidy ending will come away disappointed. Just like there’s no neatly wrapped up conclusions in life, neither is there in “Imperfect Birds.”

What there is, instead, is hope — a more valuable commodity by comparison.


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