Crooked Little Heart

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Following the success of her charming book about writing, Bird by Bird (1994), and her memoir of motherhood, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (1993), Anne Lamott has returned to the novel with Crooked Little Heart, her fifth novel, which picks up with characters introduced in Rosie (1983). Rosie is a thirteen-year-old tournament-caliber tennis player, watching the world and the people around her with the misshapen clarity that only a teenager can summon. Elizabeth is her recovering alcoholic mother, widowed from her first husband and married to James, a writer starting to feel the tepid waters of literary success. They are each self-absorbed and generous, trying by turns to set limits, overcome limits, and understand what it takes to live in a world populated not only by oneself, but by others as well.

In her other works, including her monthly column for the on-line magazine Salon, Lamott has developed an ironic, engaging style of writing that gracefully avoids calling attention to the not inconsiderable depth and insight which the author has to offer. That style is very much on display in Crooked Little Heart. If there are also moments in which the writing resembles college dormitory gossip, that is mainly due to Lamott’s intense focus on four adults whose preoccupations are with Rosie’s tennis and one another’s self- esteem.

Though it touches on all sorts of important issues, such as belief in the existence of God, Crooked Little Heart is basically a novel about the human comedy that usually knows better than to take itself too seriously. As such, the heart of the story is the relationship between middle-aged Elizabeth and teenage Rosie and their sometimes desperate and sometimes heartwarming search for each other’s approval. As an angular, unfashionably tomboyish young teen, Rosie is acutely aware of the difference between her and the truly fashionable teens, and, true to her age group, she also feels that her mother’s difference is some sort of curse. When Elizabeth picks up her daughter wearing no makeup, Rosie pleads “Would it really kill you to wear a little lipstick?” Yet Rosie changes her tune to “Don’t even bother, Mom” when Elizabeth arrives wearing makeup.

Their mother-daughter activities, however, focus mainly on Rosie’s tennis playing throughout a summer of tournaments. In singles matches, Rosie is good enough to be seeded in most of the tournaments she enters; in doubles, with her partner and best friend Simone, she is ranked even higher. At all of the tournaments Rosie enters, even the out-of-town ones, a mysterious, unkempt, middle-aged man named Luther attends. The rumor is that Luther is a veteran with a wound that, as one old-timer puts it, has “left him Luther,” and Rosie’s tennis instructor, Peter Billings, claims that he is a man who knows a lot about tennis and simply likes to watch the girls play. Elizabeth, for her part, is not quite sure that he is not some kind of sexual deviant stalking her daughter.

If Elizabeth and Rosie are the central characters, Lamott has carefully surrounded them with characters who counterpoint and complement them. For instance, Rosie’s best friend, Simone, is everything Rosie is not. Where Rosie is thin and coltish, Simone has begun to round out and develop, a fact not missed by the local boys. While Rosie is focused on playing tennis and trying to get her family to behave and pay her proper attention, Simone is interested in boys and physically mature enough for anything to happen.

Elizabeth’s best friend, Rae, is an artist who is a few pounds heavier than big-boned and has been dating a psychotherapist named Mike on and off for two years. As the novel begins, the relationship seems to be off, but the status is uncertain, most of all in Rae’s mind. She continues to talk about Mike, and her threats to call him on the telephone give Elizabeth something besides Rosie’s state of mind to worry about.

Elizabeth is married to James, a writer who has begun to be successful but who is between projects as the novel opens. Occasional essays for a local public radio station give him some national attention when they are played on National Public Radio, but mostly he busies himself haphazardly with projects around the house. Like Elizabeth and Rosie, James also has a best friend with whom he spends much of his time. Lank has known James since they were boys and has become a teacher without fully growing out of being a boy. He dates women in whom he has no serious interest and uses his spare time to go hiking and canoeing with James. Together with Elizabeth and Rae, the four central adults make a frequent quartet at Elizabeth and James’s house, and Elizabeth comments on how convenient it would be if Lank and Rae could find each other attractive enough to go out.

If Lamott’s narrative eye skips over some details which would be helpful if explored more fully (such as how these adults survive financially), it...

(The entire section is 2066 words.)