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Repairing a family's psychic house

October 15, 2002|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

Blue Shoe

A Novel

By Anne Lamott

Riverhead Books, 292 pp., $24.95


"When you invite God into your life," Anne Lamott wrote in "Bird by Bird," her bestselling book about the writing life, "you think he or she is going to come into your psychic house, look around and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture.... Then you look out the window one day and see that there's a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you're going to have to start over from scratch."

Lamott -- who writes extensively about God, recovery and faith in both fiction and nonfiction, often juxtaposing these mystical elements with the tough realities of life and a biting humor -- returns to this theme in "Blue Shoe." Mattie Ryder, a divorced mother of two who moves back into her childhood home after her widowed mother moves into a senior complex, finds the house falling down around her. Her mother has disguised extensive damage with paint and caulking, and wherever rot, cracks or mold had appeared, she had installed makeshift cabinets.

This mold is not confined to the edifice of the house; it serves as a metaphor for the rot permeating the entire familial structure. There are secrets, old wounds that have been left festering, decay that has been covered up. As Mattie struggles to make both her physical and psychic house more habitable, she must decide which damage requires eradication and which flaws can be lived with. Her mother, meanwhile, begins to suffer from dementia, Mattie's young children endure the anguish of their parents' recent split and Mattie herself slogs through the grief over her marriage's demise and her father's death. Slowly, though, as the house is repaired and the hidden dirt on Mattie's father is revealed, a kind of healing begins.

Lamott narrates this tale with her trademark dark wit, making light of that which is most painful. When frustrated that her mother's dementia never manifests itself at the doctor's office, where help is available, Mattie complains to her brother: "With [the doctor] she's totally lucid, and with us, she's like Shirley Temple on Quaaludes."

The story's pace is so languid that one wonders for a hundred pages or so what the actual plot is. There's Mattie in the rotting house, weighted with lethargy and grief, surrounded by an overflowing cast of minor characters. They offer Mattie a foil for her humorous voice but little in the way of forward momentum. Everyone seems depressed. The house's deterioration fails to resonate as a metaphor since Mattie isn't attached to it; she is only glad to be staying there rent free. In other words, the novel in many places is a lot like life -- as messy, aimless and at-times ordinary as reality tends to be -- and not the bigger-than-life experience we look to fiction to provide.

Once Lamott focuses on Mattie's family, however, things get moving. "The game had been to keep from knowing what you knew -- and certainly never to say what might be true," Mattie realizes of her family two-thirds of the way through. "If you let even a trickle in, it might wash you away. The game was to hope that everyone else would agree not to know what they knew too."

When Mattie and her brother start to piece together the mysteries surrounding their father, the pace quickens and the reader is rewarded for having stuck through all those tedious fix-up projects. Ultimately, the story grabs hold, but not until the very end.

Still, the portrait of our wounded humanity and the difficult-yet-enduring aspects of family relations is stirring and authentic. The book, like the process of clearing away the wreckage of one's own past, offers only imperfect satisfactions, but in the long run, it proves worth the effort.

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