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April 18, 2010

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Wired for deception

TO crudely paraphrase Tolstoy, all addicts' families are alike, and when it comes to teenage drug abusers they're unnervingly alike, right down to the last battering detail. So I was fewer than 30 pages into Anne Lamott's powerful and painfully honest novel when a chill of recognition shot through me.

Rosie - 17, bright and sweet and anticipating the summer before her final year of high school - has come to realize how maddeningly easy it is to deceive her mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and James. So preoccupied are they with her alcoholic mother's faltering recovery that they forget to notice whether Rosie herself is drinking (she is).

They're so clueless about her life that when James picks time for an honest chat he has no idea Rosie is coming down off Ecstasy, so "tweaked" she struggles not to "grind her teeth into paste" as she listens.

The mix of fury, disdain and childish terror with which Rosie assesses these Pyrrhic victories will be painfully familiar to anyone who has endured his or her own child's outraged refutations. It also strikes at the heart of what "Imperfect Birds" is really about: the corrosive consequences of such endless deception. The parents are regularly and convincingly lied to, then derided for having believed those very lies.

"You had to feel sorry for Elizabeth," Rosie thinks, with something approaching real sympathy. "Getting tricked like that all the time, like a child."

Rosie, Elizabeth and James are a genuinely loving little family. You'd think they could battle through anything. Rosie's father is long dead, and her mother goes to A.A., but her wonderfully goofy stepfather, a novelist who also writes for National Public Radio, loves both Rosie and his wife. There is humor, comfort and warmth.

As the long summer stretches out ahead of her, Rosie, once a junior tennis prodigy and still a promising physics student, staves off boredom by giving tennis lessons to her attractive male physics teacher in return for pocket money. She also helps out at the local vacation Bible school.

In between, though, she pops Valium, Quaaludes and Percocet; snorts cocaine; smokes marijuana laced with angel dust; steals James' and Elizabeth's sedatives; shares her friend's A.D.D. medicine; and swigs gallons of cough syrup.

Maybe her parents should be more suspicious: one of Rosie's best friends has just come out of rehab, and drugs are a depressing fixture at the parking lot in town where the kids hang out. But, like so many parents everywhere, they try to maintain a balance, keeping a sharp eye on their increasingly angry and erratic daughter.

Unable to ignore the signs any longer, they buy over-the-counter drug-testing kits and demand samples of her urine. But she's ready for them, using drops of bleach to disguise the marijuana's THC. Meanwhile, suffering from an unrequited crush on her physics teacher, she finds solace (and sex) in the arms of a 22-year-old construction worker named Fenn. On the surface intelligent and sensitive, he's also a serious drug user.

And that's the tipping point. As the summer wanes, so too do her parents' hopes. It's now clear that Rosie needs some kind of intervention, and fast.

Throughout this admirable novel, Lamott's observations are pitch perfect - likably, even brutally unsentimental, not just about parental hopes and anxieties but about the particular and touching fragility of simply being a teenager.

And you ache with the truth of Elizabeth's visceral longing for her strong, beautiful, frightening daughter: her fear at what Rosie is becoming.


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