By Emily Metcalfe Smith
When I got the chance to review an advanced copy Anne Lamott's new book Some Assembly Required, I drove home dazedly, muttering to myself: Pinch me, pinch me! Anne Lamott ranks high on my list of Women I Want to Be Like. So much so that I named my son Sam.
For the uninitiated, Sam is the name of Lamott’s son and the focus of her breathtakingly honest 1994 book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. In this seminal work that essentially launched an entire sub-genre of contemporary parent writing and blogging, Lamott painted such a nuanced and frank picture of the crazy love we have for our babies — the obsessive worry and paralyzing fears that flood around you upon their arrival, the insecurities and downright insanity that often accompany that first sleep-deprived year. And, of course, the heart-wrenching and ineffable beauty of the experience. Apart from Operating Instructions, my very dog-eared and pencil-smudged copy of Lamott's revered writing book Bird by Bird is a literary companion never far from my reach. So, you get it, I was ecstatic about the opportunity to read and review her latest.
I tucked my hot-off-the-presses copy protectively under my arm and locked myself in my room after giving my kids the unambiguous dictum: Unless someone is bleeding or something is on fire, you are not to knock on my door. Some Assembly Required begins with a sweet preface penned by the now-adult Sam articulating his hopes for the book and how it came to be written. It then progresses to the only chapter that is not presented in journal format — an awkward back-story brings readers up to speed on the situation: namely that 19-year-old Sam and his ex-girlfriend, 20-year-old Amy, had an unplanned pregnancy resulting in the birth of a son, Jax.
The book then switches to Lamott's personal journal, beginning with the day after her grandson’s birth, but also reflecting back to the birth itself. The tone of much of the book continues in this way, with Lamott describing, in detail, the events and developments of their lives: her obsessive love for baby Jax; her enchantment with his every move and twitch; her wonder at his emerging humanness. Sam is fully present in the book, sometimes in interviews in the form of questions she poses to him and his email responses. It’s been years since I had an infant, but Sam's observations about new parenthood are touching and familiar and the most charmingly engaging aspect of the book. One exchange in which he describes the horror of his infant son’s belly button brought me right back to 11 years ago. Oh, Sam, I feel you, man.
Lamott’s signature neurotic musings, which in the past had me giggling and nodding in agreement, seem overly whiney and self-indulgent in this volume. Somehow, the self-centered, self-excoriating humor doesn’t shine here as it does in Operating Instructions, although I did laugh out loud more than once at classic Lamottisms — that woman is damn funny. She readily admits to her own flaws as usual, but there is a guardedness to her admissions that keeps the reader at a distance instead of in confederate confidence.
In much of her previous work, Lamott proves uniquely adept at peeling away the varnish, layer by layer, to expose the more unsightly truths and shortcomings of our inner selves. In the process, she gracefully illuminates the beauty that we also possess. In Some Assembly Required, that raw exposure has somehow gone missing — perhaps the sensitivities around revealing such an intimate family story hamstrung her signature dexterity at magical truth-telling.
Don't get me wrong: Some Assembly Required still has much to offer, and is definitely worth the read, especially for those who will no doubt be floored by the mind-boggling fact that Sam — that little baby we fell in love with so many years ago — is now a grownup (!), and a dad. I really, really, wanted to love this book more than I did — Anne Lamott will always command a place of ultimate honor on my bookshelf, but I have too much respect for her to pretend that this work is her best.
Emily Metcalfe Smith is a writer and mother who humbly offers her opinion when asked, and often when she’s not, and is hopeful that her personal hero, Anne Lamott, will never read this review.