Anne Lamott is a breath of fresh air.
Whether she's writing nonfiction or fiction, she always seems to be writing Truth. It's not the Truth of the daily news or some ponderous philosophy. It's just Real Life, but real life with a fabulous sense of humor and an appreciation for life's little ironies.
It's also real life told with honesty, which is not always the same thing as Truth.
BLUE SHOE, Lamott's latest novel, is another paradigm of honesty. In nonfiction such as TRAVELING MERCIES and OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS, Anne Lamott is completely open about herself and her all-too-human struggles, so it's not surprising that Mattie, the main character here, shares the author's own predilection for candor --- even when it shows her in a glaringly bad light.
A perfect size-12 model for Sears, Mattie is a divorced woman raising two young children. All three of them are trying to cope with the new reality that Nicky, Mattie's ex-husband and her still occasional lover, is remarrying a sweet young thing.
"Mattie hated the idea that her kids would wake up with Nicky and Lee, when the children were at their sleepiest and sweetest, unarmored and snuggly. She prayed, but it was hopeless. When she wasn't in bed with him --- and sometimes when she was --- she wished Nicky would die, badly. Cancer, murder, even --- right after he had left late one night --- Lou Gehrig's disease. She buried her face in her hands at stoplights and prayed for healing, and then she'd imagine a torrid movie of Nicky and Lee in bed, screaming first in erotic joy, then in terror when Mattie appeared in their doorway to toss a rattlesnake at them."
This is what I really love about Anne Lamott. While most of us think about throwing a bucket of cold water, she's not afraid to have a character wonder out loud what it would be like to toss a rattlesnake onto the same steamy situation.
Another thing Anne Lamott is not afraid to discuss is God and faith. She doesn't beat the reader over the head with a stultifying Christian point of view; her characters just charmingly, sometimes clumsily, go about the business of trying to do the right thing.
Mattie talks to God, makes deals with "Him or Her," and knows she's found a friend for life when Daniel, who comes into her life as an exterminator who can't bring himself to kill rats, starts attending church with her. Mattie's church in BLUE SHOE is a joyous place, no hellfire and brimstone, and is obviously based on Lamott's own churchgoing experiences as related in her nonfiction.
"She loved how ragged the music sounded some days. The church was racially integrated, with more women than men, fifty to sixty in all, more Sundays, plus twenty children from infants to teens. It was the only place where she could sing. She loved the big proud bodies of the women in the choir, and how they could swing, and how planted on the earth they seemed, with no apology for taking up so much space. It was as if they assumed they were beautiful, and only needed to decide what color to dress the beauty in."
While Mattie's friendship with the married Daniel grows more complicated, so do her responsibilities to her mother, Isa. Isa has always been a force to be reckoned with, but now her memory problems are making her even more difficult for Mattie and her brother, Al, who embark on a journey through memory themselves. Mattie feels lost, certain that if her own father hadn't died in her childhood, adulthood would be a good deal easier. She tells Al:
"'I don't know why I'm missing Daddy right now…I just feel like if he was around, we would be okay. He'd help us when we were broke, he'd be in charge of taking care of Isa, that wouldn't be on us anymore. He'd be our dad. We'd be people in the world with a dad. It would be like having a president there for you, caring for you. And if you had that, you'd feel safe.'"
In the absence of a father, it's a BLUE SHOE that helps Mattie feel safe. Recovered from some old possessions of her father's, the shoe, "like a tiny enchanted creature from the Brothers Grimm" becomes Mattie's talisman. She carries it around with her constantly, until one day it becomes the bridge to a whole other life.
BLUE SHOE is a wry and wonderful look at life, family, friendship, and love. Anne Lamott is a terrific and versatile writer, describing persimmons "hanging like little orange Japanese lanterns" and the moon glowing "like a porthole seen from the inside of a ship, looking out into an ocean of light" in one breath --- and rattlesnake tossing in the next. It's like what Mattie thinks as she stands in line at the grocery store waiting for her addled mother:
"…Mattie's heart was soft toward her again. Mattie knew this was not clinically a miracle, but it felt like one; or maybe not a miracle, but grace, if grace meant you went from small and hassled and full of hate, tapping your foot with impatience, to holding your mother's warm hand."
BLUE SHOE isn't a miracle, but it is a little bit of grace.
Reviewed by Jami Edwards on January 21, 2011