Blue Shoe, by Anne Lamott. Riverhead Books. 304 pages. $24.95.
Blue Shoe marks Anne Lamott's return to fiction after a long hiatus, during which her well-received series of memoirs (Traveling Mercies, Bird by Bird, Operating Instructions) garnered her a hearty audience. Drawing on topics she addressed in those memoirs -- family, alcoholism, faith -- in Blue Shoe Lamott crafts a tale in which many women will find themselves.
Mattie Ryder is pushing 40 hard, pushing against her size 12 waistline, pushing through each day as a newly divorced mother of two unhappy young children, Harry and Ella, trying to make ends meet in every sense of the term and failing miserably.
Flat broke, with a sketchy income from her part-time job as a fitting model at Sears (perhaps they'll accept a perfect size 14, she hopes), Mattie has moved back to the home she grew up in -- rife with memories of her profligate father, unhappy brother and coldly removed mother -- and tries to salvage something for her children and herself.
Mattie's ex-husband, Nicky, a superbly arrogant academic equally superb at his avocation as Lothario, offers little child support but turns up at regular intervals to lure her (without much effort) into bed before returning to his new, younger and pregnant wife. Mattie's mother, Isa, a liberal political firebrand, offers no succor. Mattie's one bosom buddy, Angela, an earthy Jewish lesbian who shares Mattie's quest for faith and commitment in a less-than-perfect world, is leaving their Marin County abode for L.A. and a new girlfriend. And as if these miseries were not enough, the house is infested with rats.
Who would guess the exterminator would become the new love of Mattie's life? Daniel arrives -- dreadlocked, sexy, sweet. His first day on the job, he finds he has no taste for killing but he and Mattie strike up a friendship that takes them first to church and then leads him away from his beautiful but depressed wife. However, as the course of true love never runs smooth, Mattie first tumbles into an affair with a former classmate, William, back into bed with her ex and prays regularly to the Jesus of small moral dilemmas.
Along this turbulent path, Mattie also copes with her mother's encroaching dementia and its demands and the stunning revelation that her father had a lifelong mistress as well as having fathered a child with a 14-year-old friend of Mattie's, now a catatonic alcoholic.
As Mattie and her brother Al search for their sibling, she searches for a life that will somehow have meaning. In her highly colloquialized style, Lamott writes candidly about the deals adults make, the bargains with God to have our lives turn out ordered and content, the moral quandaries we eschew for comfort's sake. She writes candidly, if unprovocatively, about sex (William refuses oral sex with her, she tells Angela, who retorts, "That would be a deal-breaker for me.").
Some may find Lamott a tad maudlin and sentimental and her plot gaps in the novel's five-year span can irritate, but it is in the very ordinariness of Lamott's tale that readers will find themselves. This is dailiness as most of us live it: moral conflicts, money worries, feeling bereft; hating our children, parents and lovers as deeply as we love them. Lamott traverses the territory of day-to-day struggles and amid the little miseries that wear us down still finds hope and, ultimately, joy.
Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of numerous books. Her weekly column on TV and politics, "The Lavender Tube," appears in newspapers throughout the United States. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.