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Book Beat
March 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

When Pippa Dunn was 6 years old, she discovered she was adopted. She had asked her Mum if she came out of her tummy, and when her Mum said she didn’t — and was picked from a pool of babies instead — Pippa’s worldview shifted. "I was special,” she thought. "I had been chosen. But my poor little sister. She wasn’t chosen, like me. She just came.”

Now 28 and living in West London with Charlotte, her prim sister, Pippa finds out her birth parents are Americans. No wonder! She has felt like the family’s ugly duckling her whole life, uninterested in Scottish dancing and cricket and unwilling to admit Earl Grey runs through her veins.

In "The English American,” Alison Larkin’s debut novel based on her semi-autobiographical one-woman show of the same name, Pippa feels displaced in refined British society. In a comedic and heartfelt voice, Pippa tells us she finds it odd that people, including her family members, can’t express their feelings, don’t hug each other, and never say, "I love you.”

When Pippa was a child, her teachers commented on her "appalling untidiness” — revealed in amusing progress reports — while her parents didn’t support her passion for playwriting. As a young adult, she thrives as an advertising salesperson, but remarks on her unsophisticated and impulsive oddities have not ceased. She is picked at for crumbs on her clothes and her unkempt appearance, unlike Charlotte, who works for Harrod’s.

Her romantic philosophy — to date men she doesn’t like or who no one else wants — exposes an unsurprising fear of abandonment, as well as a preference for suitors she won’t hesitate to leave. Her friends, on the other hand, are off marrying Hugh Grant look-alikes.

Pippa feels there’s more to life than her spiritless British existence. When she discovers her birth mother Billie is an American — a woman with Georgian roots — she is ecstatic. Our daring heroine travels to the United States to reunite with Billie, an untidy and energetic ex-artist — and an unruly redhead, just like Pippa. This development begins to unravel the lifelong enigma of why she has never fit in to her posh and emotionally restrained culture. Her birth father, Walt, is also an American: a politically involved businessman from Washington D.C.

"He’s a Democrat, of course,” says Pippa. "He must be. We share the same genes.”

Aside from Pippa’s effort to build ties with Billie and Walt, whom she learns had a passionate and dangerous love affair, she also rekindles her cosmic connection with Nick, a man she knew seven years ago, via sensual e-mail exchanges. The feelings between her and Nick, who was also adopted, intensify as she learns more about her birth parents and their silenced love for one another. Plus, Pippa’s new friendship with Jack, who encourages her to sing and dance at a club in New York, adds a twist.

But Billie and Walt may not live up to Pippa’s ideals, and establishing her American self is more haphazard than she expected. After she accepts Billie’s proposal to work for her art organization in exchange for room and board, Pippa’s longtime fantasies of reuniting with her birth parents, working with artists, and immersing herself into American culture don’t materialize as she imagined.

Pippa is caught between two opposing lifestyles, two sets of parents, and two very different men. Larkin — who weaves comments on the nature versus nurture debate, the Iraq War, and self-acceptance — hurls Pippa onto a hilarious playing field as vast as the Atlantic. She discovers her birth father may not share her political ideals and her once fascinating mother may not be the genteel Southern woman she thought she’d be.

"The English American” is the most readable novel I’ve undertaken in a while — I devoured the book over a single afternoon, drawn to Pippa Dunn, an undeniably likeable narrator, from page one. Although Pippa’s ties with both Nick and Jack become predictable, and her sporadic remarks on the political climate feel awkward, her voice is magnetic, and you will find yourself rooting for Pippa during her quest for transnational identity.

Larkin handles the complicated issue of adoption with ease and wit. There’s never a moment where the more serious implications of adoption overshadow her lighthearted story. Even when Pippa’s new life is a chaotic mess, Larkin maneuvers through and addresses the world of adoption in an authentic and entertaining way.

Read about author and comedian Alison Larkin at You can reach me at

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