The English American
Alison Larkin
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Buy *The English American* by Alison Larkin online

The English American
Alison Larkin
Simon & Schuster
352 pages
March 2008
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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An unusual combination of contemporary chic lit and serious literary fiction, The English American is an example of how a fashionable comedy of manners can put a light, frothy spin on an otherwise serious social issue - that of the many complex, moral, and emotional issues that surround adoption.

"Everyone should be adopted, that way you can meet your birth parents when you're old enough to cope with them," says Pippa Dunn. Indeed, it seems to be the perfect time in Pippa's life to try and find her natural mother and father. Raised by a very proper English family, until now parenthood for Pippa is somewhat of a lottery. The twenty-seven-year-old is of the opinion that you never really know who you're truly going to get with regard to a mother and a father.

Living a semi-productive life in London with her older and far more glamorous sister, Charlotte (born a year before Pippa, but not adopted), Pippa tries desperately to fit in but seems to always be the odd girl out. Although loved by her mother and father who live in a beautifully restored Elizabethan home about three miles out from the pastoral town of Peasminster in Sussex, a part of Pippa is haunted by a plethora of questions and insecurities about her adopted past.

Lately, she's been upset because the direction she's going in feels all wrong for her. It's not that her adopted parents don't treat her as one of their own; they're as kindly and supporting as ever. Scottish by birth, her Dad loves to teach Pippa and the English new Scottish dances. Mum constantly solicits Pippa's advice, even as she spends most of her time caring for their gorgeous 14th-century home.

The Dunn sisters couldn't be more different. Charlotte is practical, grounded, solid and always sure of her self; Pippa remains a rather mercurial girl who wants to write plays, sing in musicals, and do something that actually matters with her life. The decision to contact her American birth mother doesn't come lightly, but faced with an adoption agency that has blacked out all the details, and a further series of roadblocks, Pippa wonders whether she will ever be able to put the ghosts of her adopted past to rest.

When the permission is finally given from the American agency to contact her birthmother, Pippa feels numb as she waits to hear some news, the uncertainty and fear that perhaps her real mother will change her mind. Like a teakettle that is about to explode, Pippa knows that you can't stop the truth and the natural law from finally surfacing: "Minutes ago my mother was a ghostly figure, asleep in the back of my mind. Now she has become real."

Although she'd be the last to admit it, Pippa is always the British sophisticate, her reconnection with her birth mother, Billie, indeed as real as anything she could have possibly imagined. Now in America for the very first time, both new mother and new daughter navigate a comfortable existence in Billie's mountain cabin in Georgia, their assumptions about each other largely proving to be false, save the occasionally jarring incidences where the unconventional Billie doesn't seem that interested in learning anything about Pippa's English life.

Still, not to be waylaid, with all this acceptance and happiness, there now comes a sense of peace that Pippa has perhaps been longing for. However, like any adopted child, anywhere, reality skulks just beneath the surface. Pippa finds herself facing a Pandora's box of decisions and difficulties when she finds herself caught between the demands of her old life in England and the exhalations of the new in America.

In Pippa, author Alison Larkin draws a quirky and likeable character a personality perhaps based on her own experiences as an adopted child. The novel is mostly fun to read, although it gets a little repetitive toward the end and loses some steam in the final third. But the author has a real talent for weaving into her story many of the personal troubles and insecurities of adopted children, lacing her prose with broad and ironic humor which does much to celebrate the endless boundaries of familial love, both natural and adopted.

The best parts of the novel are when Pippa steadily encapsulates us with her sly and witty observations over the subtle differences between English and American culture while also entertaining us with the challenges she must face as she tries to brush off any reservations about her new family in favor of looking at the world with a practical new maturity.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2008

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