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The English American (book review)

May 8, 2008

International Relations

The English American

Alison Larkin

Simon and Schuster, 336 pp, $24.95

Review Date: 4/20/2008
Word Count: 529

“The English American” is an engaging, highly readable tale of one woman’s search for love and a place in the world.

Twenty-eight-year-old Pippa Dunn is searching for herself and her roots. She navigates an international bureaucratic tangle and the clashes of culture that erupt when a British woman explodes into the life of a Southern-born artist mother and a world-traveling father. But the answers she seeks run deeper than the search for her birth parents.

Along the way, she is looking for love, acceptance and not just a country, but a sense of belonging and home. Tall, red-haired, messy and freewheeling, Pippa has always felt different from her very proper British adoptive parents. Learning her birth parents were American is no comfort. After all, she went to a posh British boarding school, knows how to pour a proper cuppa, and would rather suffer in stoic British silence than explain any of these feelings to her adoptive parents or their biological daughter.

Feeling rootless, confusing and confused, Pippa begins the search for her birth parents. Her quest takes her to upstate New York, rural Georgia and back to an England she can’t quite call home anymore.

Her birth mother and father embrace the adult Pippa with laughter, joyous tears and amazement at the litany of traits she shares with each of them. It should be perfect — her roots found, her dream realized.

But is a red-haired mother who embraces Pippa’s messiness as artistic and creative a mirror or a distortion? And what about the warm welcome from a globe-trotting father who scarcely has time for his own marriage and children? Can Pippa get all the answers she needs in the 24-hour layover before his flight out of Heathrow? And will having found her birth parents really ease all her uncertainties?

“The English American” explores questions of adoption rights and national identity. Larkin already has made a name for herself recounting these events in a one- woman stage production, and in the discussion of adoption rights taking place in online communities.

Adoptees navigating the search for their own birth parents will identify with Pippa’s frustration as she works her way through the bureaucratic process. Adoptees will empathize with the hopes and impatience that distract her from her ordinary life as she waits for her birth parents to contact her. Larkin portrays Pippa’s doubts and emotions so vividly they will resonate with any reader.

While the romantic subplot, de tailing Pippa’s choices between dashing, romantic Nick and steady, friendly Jack, follows predictable lines, it provides a counterpoint to her search. Finding a balance between her idealized visions and the nuanced realities of romance echoes the equilibrium she seeks between birth parents, the parents who loved and raised her and her sense of self.

Complex characters who are hopeful, flawed and full of good in tentions that don’t always succeed are the novel’s greatest strength. They temper the romanticized elements quite nicely, figuring in Pip pa’s romantic tribulations as well as the consuming search for her roots. Flawed but earnest characters blend with questions about family, culture and the search for self to deepen and enrich the sweetness of this wish-fulfillment romance.

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