Operating Instructions, Lamott’s 1994 journal about becoming a single mother, became a pioneering classic in this now-crowded genre. No surprise; it’s beautifully written, honest and funny. Then baby Sam grew up, fell in love, and became a father himself at the age of 19. No Assembly Required describes their first year with his son Jax, and the author’s quietly hair-raising ride (think monster-truck rally, with hoops of fire) through grandmotherhood.
It begins with addiction: “Babies’ smells set off chemical reactions through us that make us want to love and nurture them,” Lamott reports. “This is surely an unfair advantage . . . What if al-Qaeda could weaponize this?” Then comes dread and the urge to meddle, especially when the young marriage gets rocky. “I am experiencing sickening fear, the need to control, and the ubiquitous litany of good ideas,” she notes, with forensic calm. “I thank God again and again that my mind does not have a public address system.”
Lamott explores this paradoxical new role, when the heart grows brand-new chambers just as the radius of one’s authority must shrink, with her customary humour and craft. Having to butt out of her son’s private life (while continuing to pay his rent) becomes a tricky new skill, like riding a unicycle.
But the role of grandmother has its triumphant moments, too. When Jax falls sick, Lamott ever so mildly suggests to the young parents that they might “head off to the ER.” But no, thank you, they don’t think that’s necessary. When they do end up in the hospital, they call Lamott with an update. Jax is being treated and will be fine. Grannie murmurs supportively. Then she hangs up, and dances around the room, yelping “Croupcroupcroup—I was right!”