I've been a fan of Anne Lamott's since I first read her well-known writer handbook - Bird by Bird -- ten years ago. Since then, I've read one of Lamott's novels (Blue Shoe) and all of her faith memoirs. Her writing is cheeky, sincere and a little neurotic . . . aka, right up my alley.
But one book of Lamott's that I've avoided is her Operating Instructions, a memoir of her first year of motherhood. While I know mothers are wonderful, important creatures, I thought I'd hold out on Operating Instructions until amusing anecdotes about breastfeeding don't go straight over my head.
So why did I pick up the "sequel" to Operating Instructions - a memoir about Lamott's first grandchild, entitled Some Assembly Required? Well, for one thing, my mom loaned me her copy so I didn't have to track down a copy of my own. For another, I thought the book might have present a baby/adult relationship that I might relate with more than a motherhood memoir. (I mean, I love me some good baby time, but only as an objective third party.) And lastly, don't we all have a teensy bit of morbid fascination about teen pregnancy?
That's right, Lamott's son Sam became a father at age 19. Baby mama, Amy, was 20 when Lamott's grandson, Jax, was born in July 2009. Written in diary format, Some Assembly Required, follows Jax's first full year of life. The pages are filled with observations of Jax's development and growth, stories of Amy and Sam's tenuous (and failing) relationship and plenty of poopy diaper anecdotes.
While I'm sure the diary format worked well for Operating Instructions - you know, where Lamott was with her son Sam nearly every hour of every day -- the distance between grandma and baby seemed a little too great at times to make this intimate writing style really work. After all, Lamott really is just a third party (albeit, a very subjective one) in this baby's life and when she takes off for India in the middle of the book and then Europe towards the book's conclusion, the reader's left hanging, wondering "wasn't this book supposed to be about a baby?!?"
The book is less a journal of Jax's first year and more journal of Lamott's neuroses about Jax's parents during Jax's first year. Lamott does have a habit of dragging her clearly unhappy childhood, which she always manages to reference in a veil of ambiguity, into everything she writes and this memoir is no exception. As for her sobriety - that gets mentioned about once every page turn. For readers familiar with Lamott's previous works, Some Assembly Required will feel as though Lamott is processing the same ol' problems all over again, just a little less successfully this go-around.
Although the cover claims to be written with Sam Lamott (which I read in between the lines to mean "so struggling young adult Sam gets some royalty checks" but what do I know) the book is written almost completely from Lamott's point of view. I'd assumed that Lamott and Sam would alternate chapters or something, but the book contains only the following from Sam: an introduction, an essay, and occasional "interviews" with Sam about Jax's latest feats. Oh yeah, and there's the odd email from Amy included in the pages too. It's a veritable literary scrapbook of Jax's first year.
Moral of the story: It's not Lamott's strongest work, the pieces never quite match up, but it is a tender book about learning to let go of controlling other people's lives and letting
people make their own mistakes so that they might learn from them.