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.
Early in the novel, Harry, her 6-year-old, starts crying hysterically when he gets sand in his eye. Mattie tries everything, washing the eye, hugging, talking. Nothing works. He’s rude and he keeps crying. “What would Jesus do?” she wonders. “Roll his eyes and growl softly, as she was doing? She pictured Jesus and the men He lived with, whiny bachelors all–‘Can I be first? What about me, Lord?’–and saw Him sigh and head back up the mountain. Where could she go?” Meanwhile, she’s having a housewarming party and her son is ruining it. And she’s clearly a failure as a parent. She persuades Harry to take a shower. “‘Open your eyes!’ she called to him. Open your heart, she heard in silent reply; but she couldn’t.” Instead, she opens “her own eyes” and sees “a hunched and miserable boy…a refugee camp of one.” She “peered into his wild face. ‘What’s going on?’ she whispered.” It turns out her ex-husband and his new wife are going to have a baby. Harry is acting up because he can’t handle the news.
If readers can understand that Lamott’s conversation with Jesus is similar to an alert person’s ongoing inner struggle toward self-knowledge and understanding others, toward real justice and compassion (as well as a universal yearning for beauty and transcendence), they will see the strength of Blue Shoe, which lies in Mattie’s brave attempts to keep her head up (and good humor intact) in the messy swamp of her life. A college dropout, she struggles to make a living as a fitting model at Sears. She gives up sex with Nicky, her ex-husband, only to get a handsome boyfriend she doesn’t love. Then she has to work really hard to resist her romantic feelings for Daniel, a married carpenter whom she meets in his temporary incarnation as the exterminator of the rats in her walls, a job he quits almost as soon as he arrives because he finds he hasn’t the stomach for it. He becomes her fixer-upper man and friend instead. Mattie’s most difficult challenge, however, is coping with her mother Isa’s mental deterioration. Once a social activist for left-wing causes, Isa now makes racist comments about the African-American aides who take care of her. Having ignored Mattie for most of her life, she calls her many times a day, mostly to put her down. Mattie copes. But then comes the crucial moment of change. As her mother dithers on a shopping trip, Mattie wrestles with fantasies of knocking her on the head with a hammer. She prays. Finally, she softens toward “this gawky, tremulous woman with a badly pleated memory.” Isa senses Mattie’s increased warmth, turns to the man behind them in the checkout line, “her nose in the air and her eyes squinched shut,” and says, “‘This is my daughter,’ as if introducing him to the queen.” Sure, this is one of those borderline sentimental moments that sometimes threaten to overtake Lamott’s prose, though here the inherent Hallmark Card nature of the event is reduced by Mattie’s wry musing that her own softened heart was “not clinically a miracle, but it felt like one.” The point is, through enormous efforts that involve an internal process called praying–which others might think of as talking things out with oneself–Mattie is well on her way to successful personhood.
The book becomes irritating when Lamott tries to control her mass of honest material with forced symbolism. Chapters are framed and threaded through with obvious seasonal symbols (sun equals joy; clouds, misery). Even worse is the way Mattie keeps hanging on to the little blue shoe of the title, a plastic amulet that has some tie to her family’s past–as does a blue-spattered paint key–items she and her brother Al find in an old car that once belonged to their (now dead) father. Mattie’s repeated fondling of the blue shoe seems to serve no literary purpose other than to remind readers that it’s a Clue that has Meaning, and if they hang around, the clincher will come soon. This narrative failure may also stem from Lamott’s tendency to follow her own life too closely in her fiction. In an interview, she has said that the blue shoe in the book is symbolic of “the miracle of close friendships,” because in real life she also got a blue plastic shoe from a gumball machine with a friend who helped her out during a lonely time. But the friendship connection simply isn’t made clear in the book.
The symbolic lengthening of Daniel’s dreadlocks charted throughout the book to reflect his deepening relationship with Mattie is a little more subtle than the shoe symbol. It may even have some connection with Daniel’s role as the book’s Christ figure, since in art, Jesus almost always has long hair. (Perhaps the dreadlocks symbolize a parallel modern challenge to the system. Or maybe they’re just another real-life insert, since Lamott is known for her own blond dreads.) By the final chapter, however, Daniel’s locks are short again (the Christ figure is no longer divine?). At any rate, it’s a symbol that, unlike some of the others, arises organically from Lamott’s material. Like Christ, Daniel is a carpenter, a good man who throughout the book rebuilds parts of Mattie’s house, lightening dank, gloomy rooms, bringing joy into her life without controlling it. And maybe that’s Lamott’s point. Neither man nor God can give Mattie what she wants. She has to do the work on her own–to find her strong self, and at the same time learn how to be selfless without loss of self. Still, it helps to have a Christ figure around for support, whether he’s an internal conversationalist or an external handyman.
Pro and con lists are typical of much of the criticism of Lamott’s fiction, praise for her humor and honesty, denigration of her shapeless narratives. And Lamott is often at her most successful in her nonfiction, when she writes undisguisedly about her own life, when humor and honesty are in service to a clearly delineated theme. Nevertheless, Blue Shoe, despite its failures, has moments of beauty not always found in her nonfiction. One of the most moving episodes in the book occurs when Mattie visits her father’s old girlfriend, now a sad, semi-homeless, diabetic woman who lives in a run-down shack on the beach. In another strong biblical image, Mattie washes the woman’s dirty feet. Here is a place where reality and symbol are beautifully conjoined. Since diabetics are susceptible to foot infections, Mattie is being pragmatic; but she is also being kind, not in an “I’m getting points for being so selfless” way–she is repelled by the woman’s feet, which are “caked with grime, cracked with fissures in which Mattie could see grains of cat litter”–but rather because she knows she has to do it. It’s the moment when Mattie finally becomes herself and Lamott becomes the best writer she can be.