One Sentence Summary: In this memoir, Lamott explores moments that test faith and explore her own quirky relationship with God.
One Sentence Review: If you can enjoy Lamott’s neurotic but open personality, Traveling Mercies is a joy to read.
Long Review: Anne Lamott’s reflections on faith and spirituality begin with a story called “Overture: Lily Pads.” In it, Lamott explores the moments in her life when her sense of faith drastically changed. She moves from her childhood and friends and the impact they had on her growing faith to eventually finding her place in a quiet church with her son, Sam. Each of these moments, a time when Lamott felt like she reached a realization, serve as a safe space — a lily pad — between times of uncertainty. The rest of the book explores Lamott’s continuing struggle to understand God and religion and how she fits into the world.
One of the first things to talk about with this book is whether it’s a religious book or not. In topic, probably, but in spirit I think it’s more broad than that. Certainly, Lamott’s religious conversions and experiences make up the bulk of the story, but the faith she has now doesn’t dogmatic or pushy or unwilling to accept other beliefs. The book isn’t about any particular religion, but rather one woman’s journey to find a faith that works for her. If that idea doesn’t work for you — perhaps because you think there is one correct religion or because you don’t believe in having faith — then the book might not be for you.
I’ve admired Lamott ever since I read her memoir on writing, Bird by Bird. Her honesty as a writer is refreshing and something I look forward to reading. But she’s also a writer that knows what she’s doing. For example, whenever she uses a metaphor or unique way to explain something, she follows up on that reference later in the text. For readers paying close attention, these reminders serve as a little joke with Lamott that help bring out her personality and make you feel like you’re just sitting down to chat with her about faith and life.
My favorite chapter of this memoir was “Grace” where Lamott talked about feminism and her admiration of author Grace Paley. Lamott writes,
In 1970 when I was sixteen, the women’s movement had just burst into the general public awareness. I am someone who can say with all sincerity that I owe my life to the movement, but as it first emerged from new York, much of its gospel was defined by grown-up daughters who did not want to risk having anything in common with what has been their mothers’ movement. As a result, some of the language of the early movement contained an ugly rejection of mothers, of motherhood, of softness, of want to be in deep relationships with men. But at the same time, coming out of New York from the tenements and the Village and the antiwar movement was a short-story writer whose work taught me that you could be all the traditional feminine things — a mother, a lover, a listener, a nurturer – and you could also be critically astute and radical and have a minority opinion that was profoundly moral. You could escape the fate of your mother, become who you were born to be, and succeed in the world without having to participate in traditionally male terms — without hardness, coldness, one-upmanship, without having to compete and come out the winner.
She was beautiful, zaftig, and powerful; she was a mother; she was in love; she was a combative pacifist. That was Grace Paley.
The chapter goes on to tell about a chance when Lamott had the chance to do two readings with Paley. In the first, Lamott performed terribly, but learned that with grace it’s possible to forgive yourself. The idea of grace is the idea of accepting when you’re ineffectual or don’t succeed, but forgiving yourself anyway. There was just something beautiful about the whole chapter. I came back to it about a week later after I had a really horrible and no good day and reading about Grace and grace and Anne made me smile and let some of that go.
In general, I think I enjoyed this book so much because reading it left me with a series of warm and fuzzy feelings. Lamott isn’t afraid to share her neuroses, to put herself out there on the page and let you connect with her through her writing. I felt like the book gave me more faith in my own rocky and hard-to-define sense of faith, which is such a beautiful thing. I can’t say for sure whether the book would be as excellent to someone who feels confident in their faith or has no desire to find it, but for anyone who wonders about it I think the book is one to pick up and savor.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!