[11 January 2010]
Alison Larkin’s debut novel The English American is set up to be standard chick-lit fare: a beautiful, intelligent, and independent woman must overcome an obstacle to find happiness in love and life. But while most books in this genre center around finding and keeping a love interest, Larkin puts a different spin on the formula. Her protagonist, Pippa Dunn, is looking for much more than just a soul mate, she’s looking for her birth parents.
The novel is semi-autobiographical. Like her main character, Larkin was born to American parents and adopted at birth by a British family. The book is also based on Larkin’s one-woman show of the same name, which she’s performed at several comedy festivals. Larkin’s comedic take on a serious subject helps elevate the novel to a literary place, as she creates a memorable and unique fictional character.
At 28, Pippa has reached a crossroads in life. Disillusioned with her job in advertising sales and unable to stay in a relationship for fear of getting hurt, Pippa realizes finding her birth parents could give her the sense of identity that she’s always been lacking. Despite her privileged upbringing and solid relationships with her family, Pippa’s British accent is the only thing she’s ever had in common with her family. Pippa is as compulsive and messy as her sister Charlotte is neat and careful. Their parents live a quiet life in the English countryside, and her dad’s wildest hobby is a passion for Scottish dancing.
When Pippa makes initial contact with her birth mother, Billie, she doesn’t know what to expect. She’s elated to discover Billie works as an artist’s agent, and her father works in international business. Pippa has high expectations when she heads across the Atlantic to meet Billie at her home in New York.
At first Billie doesn’t disappoint. She’s an energetic redhead with a carefree attitude. Just meeting Billie answers a lot of questions for Pippa about herself. The rest of her new extended family is also eccentric, and the complete opposite of her British family. Her half-brother Ralph spends his days smoking and playing guitar, and describes Billie as “the coolest mom on earth.”
Pippa and Billie travel to Georgia, where she meets her grandfather, Earl, a direct descendant of a former Governor who is dying of cancer. Her step-grandmother Molly Alice claims Pippa showed up just in time to go after the family money. But her new family isn’t at all off putting to Pippa. Instead, they just give her a new sense of belonging.
In each of Pippa’s American experiences, Larkin is careful to point out the cultural differences between American and English behavior, even spending several paragraphs describing the proper way to make a cup of tea. While some of the contrasts are worked into the plot, other times they come across more like insights from a travel guide rather than essential details to the story.
Mixed into Pippa’s life changes is a rekindled relationship with Nick, a former boyfriend. Pippa is drawn back to him because he was also adopted, and they begin exchanging intimate e-mails about their experiences. Pippa decides to stay in New York indefinitely, working for Billie to promote artists, and in her spare time she’s started performing at a Manhattan club. Here she befriends Jack, a mild-mannered guy whose impeccably clean apartment and penchant for cooking convince Pippa that he’s gay.
Pippa also meets her birth father, Walt, who she immediately feels a connection with, despite his conservative politics. But things change when Pippa discovers he’s hiding her existence from his new family. At the same time, Pippa discovers Billie can’t be trusted.
Despite these setbacks, many parts of the plot are a little too good to be true. Pippa’s British parents are almost unwaveringly supportive throughout the process. And while her birth parents are deeply flawed, they are both eager to establish contact with Pippa, and finding them is relatively easy. The novel also lacks character development for Pippa’s love interests. Their traits and behavior are mostly implausible, and they both end up fading into the background.
But it’s clear from the beginning that Pippa is the point of the story, and Larkin certainly has created a character worth rooting for. Larkin says that her own adoption process was relatively positive, and that her sense of humor is what helped her get through the bouts of guilt and anxiety that are inherent in the process.