It’s easy to find fault with Blue Shoe, Anne Lamott’s sixth novel. Filled with daily minutiae, almost like an unedited journal at times, the book meanders through five years of the life of Mattie Ryder, a newly divorced mother of two, as she goes through every family problem imaginable, from everyday irritations like her daughter’s persistent nail-biting and son’s resistance to homework, to self-destructive actions like sleeping with her ex-husband for comfort. There’s also her mother’s decline into the dementia of Alzheimer’s disease, the discovery of pedophilia in the family past, along with a slew of other family secrets that pile up toward the end in such a heap of glued-on plot twists and unsubtle symbolism that readers can’t help but feel they’ve just experienced a kind of literary car crash. For serious cynics and some atheists, Lamott’s Marin County aging-hippie ethos and frequent mentions of Jesus (she’s a Christian, as is her heroine) also might jar–as might the aphoristic, just-this-side-of-sentimental humor that characterizes all Lamott’s work, from novels like Crooked Little Heart (1997) to three bestselling works of nonfiction, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (her 1993 memoir of life as a single mother), Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999), as well as Lamott’s online Salon columns, from which she culled at least a couple of incidents (the death of a dog, a broken bread-making machine) and a few quirky phrases for inclusion in Blue Shoe.
But this isn’t as bad as it sounds. If readers can view Blue Shoe‘s flaws as the straight guy in a comedy routine, helping to set up the gems, they’ll find much to admire. Typical is the book’s opening scene. Mattie wakes up in the bedroom of her parents’ old house (her postdivorce refuge), to a glorious fall morning, with trees “giddy with color” that seem to say, “we gave you shade, and now we’ll give you a little kick-ass beauty before we die.” It’s lovely, funny stuff–until “the rats in the walls begin to stir.” And that’s the Lamott modus operandi. One might call it stealth realism. Just when the reader thinks she’s getting too cute, Lamott throws a dash of dark reality into the mix.
She sets up clichés, only to sabotage them–just as, in the midst of her rambling narrative, she lobs psychological insights that stop one in one’s tracks. In Lamott’s world, people adore their kids, but occasionally want to beat them up. They might have undying love for their spouses, but hate their penchant for cottage cheese. Good women fall for married men. Self-absorbed ex-husbands can sometimes be kind. Civil rights activists sometimes make lousy parents. Though readers might dislike the kitchen-sink aspect of Lamott’s storytelling (“days passed…. Ella colored in her Little Mermaid coloring books and Harry drew. His drawings were becoming more and more precise…. On Thursday morning…”), this is real life she’s depicting, with all its tedium, misery, absurdity, occasional flashes of enlightenment and moments of joy.
In Bird by Bird, her book about writing, Lamott says that a story must go somewhere and at least one of the characters must be “profoundly changed. If someone isn’t changed, then what is the point of your story?” Not every writer would agree. But that appears to be the Lamott way, and perhaps explains why her books are often bestsellers. Change is possible, she suggests. Hope is just around the corner, if you try hard enough. And that is the forward movement in the book. In the midst of apparent plotlessness, Mattie Ryder keeps trying and trying. Eventually she gets somewhere. And she does it with Jesus in her heart.
Now, the Christianity here is about as far removed from smug churchgoing or self-righteous fundamentalism as it could possibly be. Lamott weaves into her narrative the aspects of Jesus’s teaching that still seem fresh: respect for society’s outcasts, tough-minded compassion, honesty and disparagement of greed and hypocrisy, themes familiar from Lamott’s nonfiction about her own experience with religion. An irreverent late convert who turned to Christianity after years of drinking and drug-taking, Lamott once described herself as a “left-wing holy roller” who thinks that “Jesus drinks himself to sleep when I trash Republicans.” Her Christianity has the flavor of the American Civil Liberties Union, which defends anyone whose rights are threatened, whether they be gays and lesbians or members of the Ku Klux Klan. Lamott may hate George Bush but she knows God loves him. In other words, religion gets her thinking about other people and perspectives very different from her own. And that’s Mattie Ryder’s triumph in Blue Shoe.