Book Review: “The English American”
Posted by beclose March 21, 2008 13:00PM
Having already made a name for herself as a comedian, first-time novelist Alison Larkin starts out with a leg up in the book world. Redbook picked “The English American” (Simon & Schuster, $24, 340 pages) as a book of the month. Vogue labeled it one of the most powerful books of the season. And there’s really no doubt Larkin can deliver onstage at readings and book signings. The buzz is on.
Who wouldn’t like main character Pippa Dunn, a vulnerable 28-year-old Brit who hails from the American South but doesn’t know it? Something of an ugly duckling, she was raised by proper British parents with behavioral traits oddly different from her own. Where they are neat, she is not. Where she is emotional, they are not. Where they like Scottish dancing, she can barely tolerate it. She’s everything her British sister isn’t — curious, artistic, clumsy and somehow out of place.
One morning she wakes up and makes the phone call that changes everything. An international adoptee, she decides she’s ready to meet her birth parents. Pippa finds herself on an emotional roller coaster, beset by feelings of guilt about the only parents she knows — “How can I do this to Mum and Dad?” But she is equally beset with excitement and worried curiosity about the parents she’s never met — “Minutes ago my mother was a ghostly figure, asleep in the back of my mind. Now she has become real.”
Pippa encounters a series of roadblocks that prevent her from moving along quickly to locate the birth mother who has already granted permission for contact. She has to hire an investigator to help get records released but eventually she comes face to face with birth parents, assorted siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles … a whole other universe of odd characters that challenges her ability to set boundaries and to make sense of who she is. Most challenging of all is the longed-for birth mother, a wildly entertaining narcissistic hedonist who tries to offer belated love and nurturing but proves to be more manipulative and opportunistic than loving. Never mind, though, she is just what Pippa needs to struggle against in order to put together the pieces that make her come out whole.
Although this mother sometimes seems more caricature than human, I recognize her from my own Southern upbringing. And although Larkin tends to portray minor characters as less than three-dimensional people, given her comedic tone, this works. Her light humor keeps the story bobbing along on amber waves of pain and self-doubt, back and forth across the Atlantic from the shores of Great Britain to the mountains of Georgia and the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C. Larkin does a believable job portraying her heroine’s struggle to separate fantasy from truth as she sorts out mythologized parents from the actual. She must, at the same time, separate an equally mythologized romantic love from the real item.
“The English American” has something universal to teach about adoption and all the big issues that go along with it, including love, grace and acceptance. Both poignant and funny, the story rings true because the author has lived the situation. It looks like Larkin has a winner on her hands in this semi-autobiographical novel about an adoptee’s identity crisis.
Reading: Larkin reads from “The English American” at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 28, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.
For more info visit Alison Larkin