When Pippa Dunn,adopted as an infant and raised terribly British, discovers that her birth parents are from the American South, she finds that "culture clash" has layers of meaning she'd never imagined. Meet The English American, a fabulously funny, deeply poignant debut novel that sprang from Larkin's autobiographical one-woman show of the same name.
In many ways, Pippa Dunn is very English: she eats Marmite on toast, knows how to make a proper cup of tea, has attended a posh English boarding school, and finds it entirely familiar to discuss the crossword rather than exchange any cross words over dinner with her proper English family. Yet Pippa -- creative, disheveled, and impulsive to the core -- has always felt different from her perfectly poised, smartly coiffed sister and steady, practical parents, whose pastimes include Scottish dancing, gardening, and watching cricket.
When Pippa learns at age twenty-eight that her birth parents are from the American South, she feels that lifelong questions have been answered. She meets her birth mother, an untidy, artistic, free-spirited redhead, and her birth father, a charismatic (and politically involved) businessman in Washington, D.C.; and she moves to America to be near them. At the same time, she relies on the guidance of a young man with whom she feels a mysterious connection; a man who discovered his own estranged father and who, like her birth parents, seems to understand her in a way that no one in her life has done before. Pippa feels she has found her "self" and everything she thought she wanted. But has she?
Caught between two opposing cultures, two sets of parents, and two completely different men, Pippa is plunged into hilarious, heart-wrenching chaos. The birth father she adores turns out to be involved in neoconservative activities she hates; the mesmerizing mother who once abandoned her now refuses to let her go. And the man of her fantasies may be just that...
With an authentic adopted heroine at its center, Larkin's compulsively readable first novel unearths universal truths about love, identity, and family with wit, warmth, and heart.
ITHINK EVERYONE SHOULD BE ADOPTED.That way, you can meet your birth parents when you’re old enough to cope with them. Of course it’s all a bit of a lottery. You never know who you’re going to get as parents. I got lucky. Then again, if I’d been adopted by Mia Farrow, rather than Mum and Dad, today I could be married to Woody Allen.
As far as the side effects are concerned, I discovered early on that the key to dealing with a fear of abandonment is to date people you don’t like, so if they do leave you, it doesn’t matter. Either that, or guarantee fidelity by dating people no one else wants.
Which is why, at the age of twenty-eight, while my friends are getting married to men who look like Hugh Grant, I’m still living with my sister.
Charlotte and I are sharing part of what used to be a Georgian house, before it was turned into flats, in West London, opposite Kew Gardens. The Kew famously referred to by Alexander Pope, on the collar of Prince Frederick’s new puppy:
I am his Highness dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?
On the morning of the day everything will change, but I don’t yet know it, I jump out of bed half an hour after the alarm goes off, wolf down a bowl of cornflakes, and scrabble about in the bottom of the broom cupboard for an umbrella. It’s raining, of course.
“Charlotte, have you seen my brush?”
“Try your sock drawer,” she says.
My sister is a buyer for Harrods. She’s looked the part since she was three. She emerges from her room, impeccably dressed, blond bob perfectly in place, handbag over her shoulder, car keys already in hand.
“Pippa,” Charlotte says, “you’re a gorgeous woman. Positively Titian. I wish I looked like you, but—how can I put this? Today you look like a plumber.”
I’m wearing overalls, which I enjoy very much. Put a different colored T-shirt under them and it looks like you’re wearing an entirely new outfit.
“I suppose you want a lift to the tube too?”
“Thanks,” I say. God knows how I’m going to get to work on time when Charlotte moves in with Rupert.
We’re almost out of our front door, which has been opened and shut by Londoners for nearly two hundred years, when Charlotte spots a tiny piece of cornflake on my shirt. She takes her hanky out of her pocket and starts jabbing at it with the precision of a woodpecker.
Ever since I can remember, my sister, friends, parents, and occasionally even complete strangers have taken it upon themselves to wipe spills off my clothes. Without asking. They simply assume I feel the same way as they do about food stains. I don’t. I think it’s absurd that anyone thinks they matter.
But I also don’t like to hurt anyone’s feelings. So when people start wiping food stains off my clothing, I act surprised that the stain is there and thank them profusely.
It’s all about what interests you. If I spend a whole day with you, and someone asks me afterward how you are, I’ll know what you’re feeling, i.e., sad, happy, preoccupied, pissed-off—whatever it might be. I’ve always been able to tune in to people in that way. But ask me what you were wearing, and I’ll draw a blank.
Charlotte will not only be able to report on exactly what you were wearing, down to the color of your socks, she’ll somehow know about the hole on the inside of your shirt, even if you’ve tucked it into your trousers. She’ll know the name of your hairstyle, the brand of your lipstick, and the make of your car.
Charlotte was born a year after me. I was adopted. She wasn’t. It happens a lot, I gather. People think they can’t have children, adopt one, and then,bam , a few months later, the mother gets pregnant with a child of her own.
Like Mum, Charlotte thinks before she speaks, makes pros and cons lists, and is content with her life the way it is. She’s practical, grounded, solid, sure.
I, on the other hand, interrupt people because my thoughts fly out of my mouth. My handbag’s full of rubbish. And I want to do something that matters with my life. Right now I’d like to write plays, sing in musicals, and/or rid the world of poverty, violence, cruelty, and right-wing conservative politics.
I’ve tried to be happy leading the kind of life that makes Mum and Charlotte happy, really I have. But pretending to be interested in things I am not is becoming more and more difficult. Take Scottish dancing.
If you’ve ever been to any kind of Scottish dancing evening in the south of England, you’ve probably met my dad. He’s the Scot at the microphone, with the shock of thick white hair, barking out orders. He’s never happier than when he’s marching up and down a drafty church hall in his tartan kilt and sporran, teaching the English a new Scottish dance.
There are more than three thousand of them. To date he’s checked off two hundred and fifty-two. He keeps his dance list in the right-hand cubbyhole of his desk, next to his spare golf balls and his paper clips.
“Set to the left!” he shouts. Dad’s lived in England so long his Scottish accent is barely detectable most of the time. Except when he’s trying to teach the English to Scottish dance. Then his Scottish burr becomes much more pronounced.
“Now set to the right! Turn your partners. Very good, Charlotte. No, Pippa! Wrong way! This isn’t the Dashing White Sergeant!”
I’ve always felt restricted by Scottish dancing. You can’t do your own thing. If you twirl to the left and jump in the air when everyone else is turning right during the Eightsome Reel, for example, you’ll spoil the dance for everyone else.
I think it’s one of the saddest things in the world—don’t you?—when people are upset because the direction they’re going in feels all wrong for you—and you know you just have to go the opposite way.
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. For more information, go to www.alisonlarkin.com.
"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." --The Oregonian
The English American is a funny, charming and poignant book -- the kind that you can't resist reading in a single day. --Chicago Sun Times
"The English American is an engaging, highly readable tale of one woman's search for love and a place in the world." --The Star Ledger
"Deceptively simple in framework, the novel successfully veers between poignancy and outrageous humor, with Larkin having great fun with English and American cultures as Pippa navigates her way through the culture clashes and extended families to recognize her unique, quirky self.." --Library Journal
"Drawn from Larkin's own life, this debut novel -- like Pippa herself -- is smart, funny, and utterly charming." --Booklist
"The English American is a heartfelt journey through the dual life of a vulnerable woman who is searching for her past in an attempt to find her future...this comedic jaunt into the nature v. nurture enigma is sure to acquire a beloved spot in hearts and on bookshelves for years to come." --GTWeekly
"You need only to turn the page to find something that will make you laugh...or cry...Pippa's journey of self-discovery and identity becomes our own. I still think about her, weeks after finishing this book." --Adoptive Families Magazine
"Alison Larkin has written a book that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Not only that, The English American is a story that you've never read before... You will love it!" --Gail Parent, Emmy Award winning writer for Tracey Takes On, The Golden Girls, and The Carol Burnett Show
"Alison Larkin nails the Anglo-American cultural divide brilliantly in the most compelling novel I have read in years. Fast-paced, moving, deeply comic and sexy, I could not put it down." --Clive Pearse, HGTV, Host of Designed to Sell and Design Star