"The English American"
(Reviewed by Mike Frechette MAY 21, 2008)
“…denial, as a way of coping, is wildly underrated.”
There are certain things about English life that Pippa Dunn truly appreciates such as a well-made cup of tea and the English version of The Office. At the same time, she feels uniquely displaced and incomplete in this context among parents and a sister who lead formulaic yet happy, successful lives. Pippa is adopted – which is no secret to her – and she always has suspected that meeting her biological parents would explain the sharp differences between herself and her family. She is sloppy, discombobulated, and bursting with creativity while her family is organized, practical, and oppressively British. When the reader meets Pippa in Alison Larkin’s debut novel The English American, she no longer can bear this incongruity and sets off to America to meet her genetic counterparts. As she tells her father, “unless I do this I’m never going to know why I am who I am.”
In other words, Pippa begins her journey believing that genes have to count for more than upbringing in formulating personal identity. Meeting Walt and Billie – her biological parents – confirms this belief initially. The characteristics of these two strangers seem to better match her own than those of Mum and Dad – her adoptive, British parents. While her own Mum is reserved and rational, Billie is like Pippa – spontaneous, undomesticated, and creative. She runs a business that works to discover new artists, which is especially soothing to Pippa since her adoptive parents constantly discourage her own creative ambitions.
However, Pippa soon begins to have reservations about Walt and Billie as they obnoxiously insist that genes outweigh upbringing and nature dominates nurture. Such flippant disregard for the caring and nurture of her adoptive parents is Pippa’s first clue that Walt and Billie might not represent her long awaited answers to the questions she has about herself. For instance, when Billie remarks that parenting has very little to do with a person’s development, Pippa rightly thinks: “I don’t know if Billie is aware – really aware – of what she’s saying, or if she’s actually trying to tell me something about myself. But if it’s all in the genes, then according to Billie, Mum and Dad and my upbringing had nothing at all to do with who I am. In that moment, something shifts inside me.” That moment provides the first glimpse into Billie’s true nature as a deceptive, emotionally stunted woman who regards DNA as a convenient excuse for personal shortcomings. To this end, Pippa understands that her own Mum and Dad have more to do with her identity than she initially realized.
Pippa experiences a complicated search for personal identity because she is torn between not only nature and nurture but also England and America. In fact, the novel initially seems to establish an inextricable link between these two sets of oppositional poles, associating nurture with England and nature with America. To be an American means that Pippa’s identity is out of her control and completely and utterly determined by her genetic makeup. As Billie says, the genetic predisposition to alcoholism means that Pippa already is an alcoholic even though she does not drink. On the other hand, to be British means that Pippa is shaped to a greater extent by her environment, which she desperately wanted to escape at the novel’s beginning.
To complicate matters further, Pippa also is caught between two men – one American and one British, of course. However, it is through these two characters that Larkin begins to break down the cultural stereotypes. Jack, though American, is remarkably similar to Pippa’s British family in that he embodies organization, practicality, and stability. Nick, while British, is a kindred spirit; like Pippa, he is an adoptee himself with a creative streak that Pippa finds almost irresistible. Her realization about who is more suitable for her proves a pivotal moment. It helps her – and the reader – to deconstruct the nature/America vs. nurture/England conundrum and properly evaluate who and what have influenced her identity.
The seriousness of this review might give some readers the wrong impression. The novel, while provocative and thoughtful, also is extremely funny, an aspect that Larkin probably means to emphasize above all else. The story apparently is autobiographical, and Larkin, in comedic fashion, has been acting out its plot for quite some time as a one-woman show at various theaters. Furthermore, the book is rife with jokes, beginning with a crack at a celebrity who has become infamous in the world of adoption: “if I’d been adopted by Mia Farrow, rather than Mum and Dad, today I could be married to Woody Allen.” The next step for Larkin’s creation is probably the big screen – the way of all popular, contemporary novels. A witty and clever first-person narrative in the vein of Bridget Jones would be suitable.
- Amazon readers rating: from 68 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The English American at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The English American (March 2008)
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- Official website for Alison Larkin
- USA Today review of The English American
- YouTube with The English American
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About the Author:
Alison Larkin was adopted at birth in Washington, D.C., by British parents and raised in England and Africa. After graduation from the University of London and the Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, she became a regular on the British stage with appearances on Broadway, a ubiquitous voice-over artist, and a successful stand-up comic. Her internationally acclaimed one-woman show, The English American, was a highlight of the London Comedy Festival.