Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1905
Mattie Ryder, newly separated from her husband, Nicky, has moved back into the home where she was raised after her widowed mother, Isa, moves to The Sequoias, a retirement home. The house is in need of many repairs, and Mattie is especially bothered by the rats she hears in the walls and ceilings. When she calls an exterminator to clear out the rats, the company sends out Daniel. It is his first day on the job and, unable to stand the thought of killing animals, he quits on the spot. Mattie feels sorry for him and offers to pay him to chop wood for her, although she has very little money herself. From that improbable start, Mattie and Daniel become close friends. Daniel often helps Mattie with projects around her house, plays with her children, Harry and Ella, and attends Mattie’s small Christian church with her each Sunday. Daniel’s wife, Pauline, is a beautiful, zaftig blonde, alternately depressed and passionate, who seldom joins in Daniel and Mattie’s activities. Mattie and Pauline have a civil relationship, but soon Mattie begins to wish Pauline were out of the picture so she and Daniel could be more than friends.
Mattie is struggling with several life changes. Having left her emotionally erratic husband, she must adjust to life as a single parent on a more limited income. Her two children, especially Harry, are dealing poorly with their parents’ separation. Mattie and the children are all jealous of Nicky’s young, blonde girlfriend, Lee. Isa is becoming more forgetful and dependent. Angela, Mattie’s closest friend, has moved to Los Angeles with her lover, Julie. Mattie’s beloved dog, Marjorie, is in failing health. The one positive factor in Mattie’s life is her church and her deep, personal relationship with her God.
Mattie is a spoiled, neurotic woman who has no identity or self-esteem without a man. It seems that she has never had to take responsibility for herself. She has few job skills—her only income is her salary as a part-time clothes model at Sears. She loses even that job after Nicky and Lee’s son Alexander is born, because she loses so much weight that she is no longer a size 12—an extreme reaction that demonstrates her addiction to Nicky’s attention.
Mattie’s only sibling, Al, lives nearby with his girlfriend, Katherine. Al fears that he could never be a good parent but is a loving surrogate father to Harry and Ella. Mattie depends on Al to help her with the increasing demands of their mother. They find a sensitive ally in Isa’s new friend Lewis, another resident of The Sequoias, who is kind, devoted, and gentlemanly toward Isa. He also begins to join Mattie and Daniel at church.
Mattie and Al had a tumultuous childhood. Their parents, Isa and Alfred, were part of a group of politically and socially liberal Marin County bohemians, and the children were often left to fend for themselves. Alfred, a lawyer, drank a great deal; Isa worked, cleaned, and nagged. The two fought tumultuously and were generally miserable together. Alfred left town monthly, allegedly on business trips to Washington, D.C. Al was a troubled and aggressive child and began drinking and using drugs as a young teen. Mattie responded to the chaos by trying to be as good as possible. As the two grew older, they became close, and Al achieved sobriety in his twenties after years of therapy.
Among the Ryders’ closest friends were Neil Grann, his daughter Abby, and his girlfriend Yvonne Lang. However, Mattie and Al long ago lost touch with their old friends. One day Mattie sees the old Volkswagen bus that her father owned in the 1970’s. She learns that the driver had bought it years ago, after her father had sold it to Neil Grann and Abby subsequently wrecked it. The driver still has the odd collection of objects that had been in the glove compartment, including a paint-can opener coated with pale blue paint and a tiny blue plastic tennis shoe, and he gives them to Mattie. Although she has never seen these two items, Mattie begins to keep the blue shoe with her as though it had some magical power and wonders where her father had used the paint-can opener, since they had never had a blue room in their home.
Lonely and jealous of the gorgeous Lee, Mattie had quickly resumed a sexual relationship with Nicky after they separated, often using problems with the children or the house as excuses to have him come over. Although she prays for the strength to resist this temptation, the reader may suspect she has little interest in having her prayers answered. Eventually, Nicky announces that he and Lee are expecting a child, and Mattie’s jealousy and guilt both intensify. Still she continues to sleep with Nicky, even after Nicky and Lee are married and their son, Alexander, is born.
Harry is an intelligent child, often asking questions and making comments that are very mature for his years, but he takes out his anger and frustration on his little sister and creates dramatic scenes that leave Mattie shaken. Ella finds quieter ways to express her pain—gnawing on her wrist until it develops a permanent open wound, later chewing her fingernails until they bleed.
While buying sandwiches for a beach picnic at a small market, Mattie sees William, son of the store’s owner, Ned. She and William had been classmates in elementary school, and she is surprised that the short, irritating eighth-grader has turned into a tall, handsome, cultured, charming gentleman. They begin dating and become sexually involved, but Mattie realizes that she is using William to inoculate herself against sleeping with Nicky and pining after Daniel. Mattie keeps William at arm’s length emotionally, hiding personal information about herself and her family, telling him only what she thinks will flatter her.
Al and Mattie discover boxes of their parents’ things in the attic of their childhood home, including several letters from Neil to their father. Recollecting half-forgotten incidents from their teenage years, they begin to wonder about Isa and Alfred’s real lives. After Mattie starts working part time for Ned, she learns that Abby lives nearby like a squatter in a dilapidated beach shack, filthy and barely coherent. Her son, Noah, works in the small local library. Mattie and Al soon feel compelled to make contact with Abby and Noah.
Isa’s growing mental deterioration becomes obvious to her family after she runs into heavy machinery parked on a highway shoulder, then accuses the police of Gestapo tactics when she is taken in for reckless driving and leaving the scene of the accident. Mattie insists that Isa see a doctor, but at the doctor’s office, Isa is charming and relaxed. Nevertheless, the doctor orders a series of tests. Mattie is saddened when she sees her mother’s aging, naked body, and concerned that Isa smells unclean and is wearing dirty undergarments. The doctor eventually determines that Isa has had a series of small strokes.
Mattie and William’s relationship is collapsing, and he is about to leave her. Although she constantly faults William’s personality and character, Mattie is desperate to keep him available to her, so she breaks a confidence with Al and tells William the secret she and Al have uncovered about Abby and Noah. When Al learns what she has done, he withdraws from her completely for weeks. Mattie and William’s relationship soon ends anyway, leaving Mattie alone again and more needy than before.
Daniel and Mattie continue their close friendship and his marriage becomes rockier. However, he remains committed to Pauline, and they leave on vacation in the hope of rekindling their feelings for each other. After a few days, Daniel calls Mattie from Idaho, saying that he and Pauline have had an awful fight. Mattie offers to let him stay at her house while he sorts out what he wants to do. After a few days, he agrees to her offer and moves into her laundry room. They settle in together as roommates, maintaining a chaste friendship for many months, even after declaring their love for each other.
As Isa fails more mentally, she becomes as much of a child to Mattie as her children are. Like the rebellious teenager that Harry is quickly becoming, Isa constantly challenges Mattie’s plans and suggestions. She is particularly adamant that she will not move into the assisted living wing of The Sequoias, despite the fact that she can no longer live alone. She fires the aides her children hire to help her, badgers Mattie to let her move in with her, and tries to make Mattie feel guilty when she refuses. Isa finally has no choice but to move to the assisted living wing, where she is reunited unexpectedly with a long-lost friend.
Lamott’s earlier novels, plus her books of essays, have drawn heavily on her life, including her troubled childhood; her alcoholism, drug addiction, and recovery; her first year as a single mother; and her membership in a small, racially integrated church. Many of these subjects reappear in Blue Shoe, plus the new element of her recently deceased mother’s bout with Alzheimer’s disease. Although many current novels incorporate the problems of middle-aged children caring for deteriorating parents, Blue Shoe also features a theme less often seen in mainstream contemporary fiction: a relationship with God. God could be considered a major character in the novel, since Mattie chats with God throughout the novel.
Blue Shoe is narrated by Mattie, so the feelings of the other characters are presented only through her eyes; however, most of the other characters are strongly written and clearly presented. The novel covers a span of four years, but seems more compressed; the main clue to the passing of time is given when Mattie talks about the children’s ages.
Lamott’s themes will resonate with many contemporary readers: conflicting feelings after a divorce, the trials of single parenthood, the challenges of finding new love, the fears and problems of adults raised by overly permissive parents in the 1960’s, dealing with an aging parent who is losing her mental facilities, and even the heartbreak of letting go of a treasured family pet who is dying. The bureaucratic details involved in trying to find Isa the help she needs and the financial burdens that will result for her family are presented with painful accuracy. In spite of her litany of problems, Mattie’s story also has many humorous moments and is enlivened by Lamott’s wit and rich, descriptive language.
The deteriorating house to which Mattie returns is a metaphor for the life her family lived there—the house’s structural flaws have been covered over with paint and wallpaper but never repaired; the rats scurrying in the walls and ceiling whisper the secrets that Mattie finally acknowledges each of them pretended not to know that they knew. When Mattie and Al finally uncover the secrets of the paint-can opener and the blue shoe, they are not surprised and neither is the reader.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 99 (September 1, 2002): 6.
The Christian Science Monitor, September 26, 2002, p. 19.
Library Journal 127 (September 15, 2002): 92.
Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2002, p. E11.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (October 13, 2002): 34.
Newsday, September 27, 2002, p. D32.
Publishers Weekly 249 (August 26, 2002): 40.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 6, 2002, p. G10.
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