For Book Clubs
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion:
1. In what ways is Pippa American? In what ways is she English? Do you think there are national characteristics to being an American? If so, what are they?
2. How much of Pippa is nature, how much is nurture and how much is individual choice? What do you think about this question in relation to yourselves?
3. How effectively does the author use humor in the book?
4. What is your favorite scene in the book and why?
5. How does the author explore themes of fantasy and reality in relation to both Pippa’s romantic and her parental relationships?
6. If Pippa decides to stay in America and marry Jack, what do you think she will miss most about England?
7. How do you think Pippa’s journey frees her up to be herself?
8. How do you feel about Billie? If you could give her advice about how to help her daughter before she meets Pippa, what be your list of Do’s and Don’ts?
9. How do you feel about the way Mum responds to Pippa when she tells her she feels she needs to find her birth parents?
10. Has the author been successful in her attempt to show why Pippa’s need to search for her birth parents is not a rejection of their adoptive parents?
11. In what ways are Walt and Dad similar? In what ways are they different?
12. Are you one of the 60% of Americans who have a personal connection to Adoption? If so, what is it? Has the book changed the way you view the needs of the people touched by adoption in your life?
13. On pages 56 & 57 and in her DNA song, the author makes it clear that she feels the fact that adopted people are the only U.S. citizens unable to routinely obtain their birth information raises significant human rights concerns, particularly considering the fact that knowledge of medical history can be life saving. To hear the author singing about this issue go to http://www.youtube.com/alisonlarkin or google Alison Larkin DNA Song. After reading the book and hearing the song, how do you feel about this issue?
14. Compare the English and American minor characters in the book.
15. How does Pippa change from the beginning of the book to the end?
Author Q & A:
In what way are you and the main character, Pippa Dunn, similar? And in what way are you different?
Pippa has long red hair, and is achingly beautiful. I have mid-length blonde hair and can look quite cute on a good day. Neither Pippa nor I care about what we’re wearing and we are both impulsive and chronically untidy. Like Pippa I was adopted in America as an infant and raised all over the world by tidy, loving English parents. Like Pippa I adore my adoptive parents despite the fact that we are very different.
Like Pippa, when I found my birth parents – who are free-spirited and artistic Americans – it answered key questions about myself. It also brought me closer to my adoptive parents, as is usually the case.
However, while Pippa’s emotional journey in many ways mirrors my own, I’m not a cabaret singer, my birth mother doesn’t run a company called “Art Buddies”, she doesn’t live in Georgia and my birth father isn’t a neo-conservative, enigmatic, politically involved business man. The mysterious Nick, who seduces Pippa via email, didn’t exist in my life – although he may have existed in my dreams. My Dad isn’t short, my Mum isn’t blonde, I don’t have a non-adopted sister, a dog called Boris or a penchant for fig newtons. The list goes on and on and on. In other words, it’s fiction.
You were a classical actress and playwright in England. Soon after meeting your birth mother you became a stand-up comic in New York. How did this happen?
A few weeks after meeting my birth parents, in the throes of “I’ve just found out I’m really an American” euphoria, I found myself in New York City, I stood up at a comedy club and, in my very English accent, I said “Hallo. My name is Alison Larkin and I come from Bald Mountain, Tennessee.” The audience laughed. I didn’t know anyone else in New York and they felt like friends, so I started talking to them about I could talk to about what had just happened in my life. I quickly discovered that the beauty of stand-up comedy is that you can say anything you want, as long as you make it funny.
When people found out that I was telling the truth about meeting my birth parents, they’d ask questions like ‘what was it like meeting your ‘real’ parents?’ And “Why would someone from a happy adoptive family want to do something like that?” My one woman show – a combination of theatre and stand-up – was my answer to both these questions, plus a good excuse to crack lots of jokes about England and America.
D: So with young children and a busy speaking and performing career, how and why did you write a 350 page novel?
There’s only so much you can do in seventy-five minutes on stage, and the show only skimmed the surface of the bigger, funnier, more authentic story I knew I wanted to tell one day.
People have no idea of the huge internal and external obstacles that face adopted people who decide to try to find their birth parents. Instead of being seen as the heroes they truly are, in today’s culture adopted people tend to be portrayed as victims at best or serial killers at worst. (Or they’re just presented as rather blah – like the adoptee in Mike Leigh’s otherwise excellent film Secrets and Lies, which told the birthmother’s story authentically and sympathetically – and presented the adoptee as completely together and unaffected by what I knew to be an intense, life-changing experience for myself, and other adopted people I know.)
I was completely fed up with what seemed to me to be a lack of empathy and understanding for what the adoption and reunion journey might be like for the adopted person themselves. I had a growing sense that if I could create an appealing, funny, authentic, vulnerable adopted heroine/narrator – and take the reader with her on her journey in an entertaining, accessible way – people might start to really ‘get’ what it might be like, from an adopted person’s point of view. I started with the premise of my autobiographical one woman show and jumped off into fiction from there. Instead of presenting the adoptee as yet another victim, I wanted to create an authentic, accessible adopted heroine at the centre of the kind of book I like to read.
D: And what kind is that?
The kind that keeps you up at night because you have to know what’s going to happen next! I don’t have time to read much now I have kids. When I do read I’m either on a plane or about to go to sleep, so a book has to totally grip me from page one if I’m going to have a chance of finishing it. It also has to have short chapters!
How do your parents, birth and adoptive, feel about the book?
My English parents have ‘accidentally’ left copies of The English American in hotel rooms while on holiday in Singapore, France and Scotland. My birth father slips the cover of The English American over whatever book he is reading when traveling on airplanes. When the book was featured in Vogue, my birth mother marched the magazine into bookstores all over the south and showed it to bookstore owners so they could be sure not to run out of stock.
Mum does not express any fear when Pippa decides to go off to find her birth mother. Why did you write her that way?
I wanted to portray an adoptive mother who puts her child’s needs before her own. The English mother in the novel, like my own adoptive mother, is a wise and inherently unselfish person. Instead of making Pippa feel even more guilty than she does already, she gives her vulnerable, overloaded daughter what she truly needs to grow up – i.e. the emotional space to go on her journey. This is, to me, an act of genuine love and it plays a large part in finally enabling Pippa to come into her own. I have heard from many adoptive parents who tell me they have found her example to be helpful and inspiring.
What kind of reactions have you had from members of the adoption community?
Adoptive parents tell me they no longer feel threatened by the thought of their son or daughter going to find their birth parents. Birth mothers tell me the book helped them understand just how much the child they relinquished will have to integrate after a reunion – and why this may take years. And I have heard from thousands of adopted people of all different cultural backgrounds who tell me that Pippa is ‘them’.
Is the way Pippa approaches her love life at the beginning of the book typical of adopted people?
I can’t speak for everybody of course, but I have heard from many adopted people of all different cultural and ethnic backgrounds who tell me they strongly relate to the fear of rejection that prevents Pippa from being able to fully trust her early boyfriends. Like many of my non-adopted readers who experienced some kind of abandonment in childhood, they find hope in the fact that once Pippa finds the truth, which leads to the uncovering of her authentic self, she is finally able to love without fear.
Were you hesitant to meet your birth parents? Why did you wait until you were 28?
As Pippa says at the start of the novel, “I think everyone should be adopted. That way you can meet your birth parents when you’re old enough to cope with them”
It’s a joke, but there’s truth in the second line. It’s a huge thing for any adopted person to even think about and not something I felt anywhere near ready to deal with emotionally until I had dealt with the pesky task of growing up.
Do you have any regrets either way?
I certainly don’t regret finding my birth parents any more than Pippa does. However, I do regret the fact that I did not have adequate professional help at the time. I feel so strongly about the importance of this, I’ve put a comprehensive adoption support referral page on www.alisonlarkin.com, to help adopted people who are even thinking about embarking on this challenging journey. The page also includes referrals for adoptive parents, and birth parents.
How has your sense of humor helped you through all the revelations of being adopted and then with meeting your birth parents?
I rely on my sense of humor as much as I rely on my right arm and my eyesight. When you can laugh in the midst of even the most painful of situations, it releases something. It helps you through.
At what age did you recognize that you had talents as a writer/comedian/actor?
I’ve written and performed ever since I can remember. When I was seven I performed My Fair Lady in a drafty bathroom in Yorkshire one wet summer holiday afternoon for my parents and their friends. (We were in the bathroom because the farmhouse didn’t have heating except for a heated towel rail in the bathroom, thus it was the warmest room in the house.) This memory – altered to make it fit the story – made it into the book.
Why did you seek out your birth parents? Do you have an ongoing relationship with them?
I sought out my birth parents because, like PIppa, I wanted to reassure them that I’d had a happy life and because I had questions about myself and my origins that only they could answer.
Thankfully they were open to contact and 100% available when I needed them to be. They helped me understand and value the parts of me that were so very different from my adoptive parents. Even more importantly, I no longer have to say ‘I don’t know, I was adopted’ when a doctor asks me for my medical history – something that turned out to be critical when it came to the birth to my first child.
I have the greatest respect for my birth parents, but they didn’t parent me day to day, so the word ‘parent’ doesn’t really feel right for me. I think of them more like friends. While I remain in occasional contact with them, it is my parents in England who I think of as my ‘parents’, who my children think of as their grandparents and who I am on the phone to all the time and plan family vacations with.
How do you cope on July 4th?
I’m never quite sure whether I should celebrate or mourn the shrinking of the British Empire. So generally I wear black and eat a hot dog.
If you could pick one thing that Pippa learns in the book and pass it on to your children, what would it be?
As Pippa’s dying Southern Grandfather says, “Welcome the difficulties, ‘cos it’s them you learn from.”
If you could leave your readers with one thing, what would it be?
What do you love most about living in America?
The fact that it is full encouraging, optimistic people who say “Go for it!” as often as folks back in England said “Ooooh, I wouldn’t try and do that if I were you.”
Are you planning a new book? If so, what is it about?
Yes! I am hard at work on my second novel.
My new heroine, Annie Perry, fled to America years before the story begins because of something that happened to her in England – we find out what during the course of the book. She’s older than Pippa – a witty, slightly eccentric Miss Marple type and she gets the love story, which is pretty epic and directly affected by one of the secrets at the heart of the book.
One of the other main characters is a fiercely independent seventeen-year-old American girl who was conceived through anonymous egg donation and finds herself in need of Annie’s help.
What would you say is the major difference between English and American women?
American women will tell you they hate at least one thing about the way they look. English woman will feel just as insecure about it, but won’t admit it to anyone. You have to go to India or China to find a woman who is genuinely content with the way she looks – perhaps because she lives in a culture that values the wisdom that comes with age far more than weight gain or wrinkles.
Q: Do you consider yourself English or American?
I consider myself an American with a British accent, and a Brit with American enthusiasm levels.
3) Some ideas from Alison on how you might enhance your book club.
I come from a performing background. When the comedy is working, you know it, because the audience laughs. When the story is moving the audience, you can hear sniffles right there in the room with you. Writing a novel is quite different. You work on it for months and months and eventually people read it, but you have no idea what they’re thinking or feeling unless they tell you!
I love hearing from book clubs a) because it’s great fun and b) because it always gives me a new perspective on what I have written. To invite me to phone into your book club, or let me know what your book club thought of the book, go to my website and shoot me an email.
I have been delighted to hear from book clubs who have discussed the book over a cup of English tea. After all, T.E.A. could be seen as an acronym for The English American
You can find clear instructions on how not to make a cup of tea on page 94. Here are a few updates on Pippa’s how to suggestions.
Pippa’s Perfect Pot of Tea
. Put the kettle on. When it whistles at you, pour half cup or so of the boiling water into your teapot (a Brown Betty or glazed china ideally), twirling it round inside the pot before pouring it away. While you are doing this, treat yourself to a piece of chocolate, Cadbury’s ideally, and hum one of Pippa’s favorite songs from the book.
. Dole out one heaped teaspoon of tea leaves – Earl Grey, Lapsang or Darjeeling – one for each person and one for the pot, into the warmed teapot. The kettle will have reached a cheerful boil by this time, so pour the water over the tea. Take care that the water is not long boiling; over boiled water results in a foul tasting concoction that could upset your friends.
. Let the tea brew for anything from three to six minutes, but no longer, (see above.)
. Give the tea a good stir and pour it, not forgetting the tea strainer to catch leaves otherwise you find that people spend more time picking the leaves out from between their teeth than discussing my book. If you take your tea with milk, you should add it to the cup, cold and fresh, before pouring the tea.
With the tea you might consider serving genuine British delicacies! An excellent place to purchase these at a reasonable price is www.britishgiftbaskets.com.Their products include, but are not limited to, Typhoo tea, Scone mix, strawberry jam, chocolate digestive biscuits, hobnobs, maltesers, crunchies, chocolate buttons and marmalade. The president of this company is my husband, who just happens to bear a startling resemblance to one of the men in The English American. Guess which one!
If you, unlike myself or Pippa, are a woman with culinary energy, you might like to go all the way and serve the tea with toast and home made marmalade.
Here’s my Dad’s prized recipe for homemade marmalade, taught to him when he was a boy by his Scottish cousin Janie.
SEVILLE ORANGE MARMALADE
You will need:
Large stainless pan – for the quantities below I use one of 7 liters.
4lb Seville oranges
8 lb white sugar
8 pints water
(These quantities can be halved if necessary)
Fill pan with the water
Cut the oranges and lemons in half, extract juice, pips and pith. Add juice to water and tie pips and pith in a muslin bag.
Cut up the peel either by hand or in a food processor
Add peel and muslin bag to water and simmer gently until peel is tender – about 2 hours.
Take out muslin bag and discard contents
Add sugar, stirring until dissolved to avoid sticking and burning
Boil rapidly (“rolling boil”) until setting point is reached – about 20 minutes. Setting point can be tested either by seeing if mixture falls as a curtain from wooden spoon or by putting small amount in saucer and if the surface crinkles, setting point is reached.
Meanwhile, heat clean jars. Leave marmalade to stand in pan for 5-10 minutes then fill jars. Put on waxed discs and add covers when cool.
To enhance your book club, go to Alison Larkin’s You Tube Channel where you can watch:-
1. Alison Larkin singing her DNA song at the end of a keynote speech – echoing themes from The English American
2. The ladies (and gentleman) of the North West Book club discussing Alison’s book on TV AM
3. An interview with Alison from Turn Here films.
Marie Taluba created this English American crossword puzzle! for her Hunterdon County, New Jersey book club. Enjoy!