When I was a kid, my aunt had one of those worry stones carved out of a chunk of onyx, a souvenir from a trip to Mexico. The idea was that you held the diamond-shaped lozenge of stone, put your thumb in the oval depression in the center, and rubbed the stone fretfully while you worried about your troubles. How abrading layers of skin was supposed to help, I don’t know, but that’s how it worked. As for me, I have a different kind of talisman: a small plastic card illustrated with a soothing winter landscape. When I’m feeling stressed, I simply hold up the card, gaze thoughtfully at the serene image before me...and then hand it to the cashier and charge an armload of bath and beauty products. Works every time.
Mattie Ryder has her own little magic charm: a miniature blue plastic shoe, small enough to close your hand around. Mattie’s brother Al happens to see their dead father’s distinctive old van tootling around downtown and stops to talk to the driver. The new owner remembers their father and gives Al a bag of knick-knacks that were lurking in the glove compartment when the van changed hands. Among the items are a metal key stained with paint in a bright blue, an old bracelet of Mattie’s, and the little blue shoe. Al lets Mattie have it, and she gloms onto the tiny sneaker, carrying it everywhere with her like a security blanket. Neither of them can make sense of the key, though; they’ve never seen it before, and the blue paint doesn’t match any of the walls of their childhood home, where Mattie now lives with her two children after the collapse of her marriage.
Intrigued by the little mystery, Mattie and Al go up to the attic to sniff around, and find some packets of letters from their dad’s best friend, Neil. The last one reads, “Fuck you...you’re dead to me,” and indeed, the family hasn’t heard from Neil (or his wife, Yvonne) for many years. Reluctantly, Al tells Mattie a story from many years ago: as a teenager daytripping to Haight-Ashbury to score some weed, Al had unexpectedly run into their father – with Neil’s teenaged daughter Abby. Visibly nervous, their father explained that his flight to Washington (where he made monthly “business trips”) had been delayed, and he’d run into Abby while killing some time in San Francisco. At the time, Al was just glad he wasn’t in trouble; now, the memory seems sinister and shady. To make things even stranger, there’s a rumor that Abby, now an adult, is back in town but deeply reclusive. Equal parts curious and apprehensive, Mattie and Al poke tentatively at the questions surrounding their father’s past, not at all sure that they want to know the answers.
Meanwhile, Mattie is struggling to support herself as a stay-at-home mom. Fortunately, she lives rent-free in the family home (abandoned when her mother, Isa, moved to an assisted-living community), but the child support she receives from her ex-husband/booty-call Nicky isn’t enough to make ends meet. Plus, the house has rats. Disgusted, Mattie calls out an exterminator, but when he arrives, Daniel proves to be a gentle, pleasant man who lacks the stomach for the gruesome job. He quits on the spot, and she hires him to do some odd jobs around the house instead. Mattie is disappointed to find that Daniel is married, but resolves to make the best of it and be friends. Soon, they’re nearly inseparable, much to the dismay of Daniel’s tubby hippie wife Pauline – it seems their marriage isn’t all that strong after all, and Pauline feels the need to engage in some guerrilla tactics to keep Mattie away from Daniel. Or vice versa. Wink wink.
Anne Lamott is best known to me as the author of the popular writers’ how-to Bird by Bird (which I own but have never read). Since everyone praises Lamott’s writerly insight and instruction so highly, I was surprised at the clumsy pacing and strangely unaffecting prose in her own fiction. The story covers more than four years in less than three hundred pages, and though this is not necessarily a problem, the way she does it is; half a year zips by in one paragraph, and then five or six pages are devoted to a throwaway scene that contains no crucial information. Mattie often comments with bemusement on how months fly with preternatural speed, and that, in late October, “it should have been March 23”; it’s a sentiment the reader can sympathize with. There is no compelling reason for the story to encompass such a large chunk of time, anyway, which makes the awkwardly handled time travel even more inexplicable. Because Mattie is deeply religious, the prose is saturated with wry, rueful conversations with God, and Erma-Bombeck-esque (i.e., not funny) housewife humor about the vexations of raising kids. If saccharine religious earnestness isn’t your bag, you’ll never be able to get through this; I had to take it in fifty-page sittings to avoid throwing up.
This is by no means a page-turner; the ending is obvious from a couple hundred pages away. Blue Shoe is supposed to be one of those novels where the pleasure lies not in the end but in the journey; alas, the journey’s not much fun either. Mattie is a not-overly-intelligent, blandly religious protagonist, simultaneously resentful of and dependent on the neediness of her family; her character is well-developed without being interesting in any way. Blue Shoe attempts to glorify the extremely ordinary life of an extremely ordinary character; but why such a thoroughly unremarkable existence merits such veneration is unclear. If you have a lucky charm that you find effective, you might consider forwarding it to Anne Lamott; blue shoes don’t seem to be working out too well for her.