There are times when one phone call can change the course of one’s life. This phenomenon landed upon bestselling author Anne Lammot when, the day before Thanksgiving 2008, her phone rang. “Mom,” said her then 19-year-old son Sam, “I’m going to be a father.” There began the ups and downs that would be recorded and become Lamott’s most recent book, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012). In the book Lamott writes with Sam about the first year of Jax Jesse Lamott’s life. What ensues is Lamott’s trademark combination of neurosis and humility; hilarity and lament; irreverence and honoring God; and self-loathing and grace, with the kitchen sink in between.
The book is a gift for all of us who are not perfect. While the days of Sam’s and Jax’s birth were, says Lamott, the two most important days of her life, each day signaled the beginning of unplanned parenthood. Both Lamotts are open about the difficulties of raising their children, Anne as a single parent and Sam as an art student and part of a tumultuous relationship with Amy, Jax’s mother. They do their best to celebrate life and see the gifts of God even within the most chaotic of relationships and situations. The fact remains, however, and hangs like a heavy cloud throughout the book (and most likely throughout their lives, as this is a memoir) that things have not turned out the way that Anne or Sam would have envisioned for themselves. This is appropriate, and for the sake of the book, it provides context and tension that the reader desires to see resolved. It makes one want to keep turning pages.
The book reads slowly in the beginning. Perhaps because I am neither a grandmother nor an expectant grandmother I felt as if I was trudging through. Lamott’s anxiety and neurotic tendencies really show up in the first half of the book. Some of her commentary is sarcastic and an attempt at humor. I get that; Lamott has written similarly in her other non-fiction books. Her commentary seemed darker in the first part of this book, however. A good example is a letter about the secret of life that she writes to Jax after his first Thanksgiving. While she does come around and bring light towards the end of the letter, Lamott tells her grandson that the secret of life is that “everyone is flailing around, winging it most of the time, trying to find the way out, or through, or up, without a map” (p.92). This may be true, but it seems a glass-is-halfway-empty approach. I wonder if this is her way of expressing how deeply she was affected by her son becoming a father at such a young age, prior to finishing school and with a partner with whom he argues more than laughs.
Things do pick up at about halfway when Lamott goes to India on vacation. It seems and feels as if she came alive in India. Her descriptions of the market places, the people, the smells, the color, the food and even the ubiquitous beggars bring the reader into the narrative in such a way that one might just taste, see and smell for oneself.
Lamott’s sensitive heart shines through like a beacon as she describes her yearning to help the beggars. There is one day in which she escapes the watchful eye and presence of her friend Bill with whom she is traveling. Bill tells her more than once that under no circumstances is she to give money to any beggar. “You’ll start an uproar,” he instructs her with all sincerity. At last the need and devastation are too much for her and Lamott declares it “International Annie Defies Bill and Gives Away Money to Beggars Day” (p. 152). It doesn’t take long for things to snowball, as she begins by giving money to two mothers and their children and in a moment’s notice 40-50 beggars are surrounding her calling, “Mama! Mama!” and “Auntie! Auntie!” grasping and groping her. She was saved by a hotel attendant who shooed the beggars away. Overwhelmed from her experience, Lamott had to sit and catch her breath to recover. Graciously, Bill listens as Lamott later describes the scene and refrains from saying I told you so.
Overall I feel that this book was not Ms. Lamott’s best effort. It usually does not take me as long to connect with her as it did in this book. That said, I would still recommend Some Assembly Required to readers for its overarching message of grace. There is not a person on earth for whom life has been and is without sin and poor decisions that bring with them heavy and sometimes life-altering consequences. In Lamott we have an equally fallen journey partner who has the courage to live and love through life’s muck regardless of how negative and fearful she can be. Moreover, she is brave enough to write about it. One of the slogans that she shares as she concludes her introduction best summarizes the book’s theological theme: “Ask and allow, ask God, and allow grace in” (p. 8).