Book Excerpt: The English American

Alison Larkin's semi-autobiographical novel centers on an adoptee — raised in England, but born in America — who, as an adult, finally meets her birth mother for the first time. Read an excerpt of The English American here.

Cover of The English American

I think 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 whom 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 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 try to guarantee fidelity by dating people no one else wants.

Which is why, at the age of 28, while my friends are getting married to men who look like Hugh Grant, I’m still living with my sister, Charlotte.

On the morning of the day everything will change, but I don’t yet know it, I jump out of bed long after the alarm goes off, wolf down a bowl of cornflakes, and scrabble about in the bottom of the 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, car keys 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?”

“Thanks,” I say. God knows how I’m going to get to work on time after Charlotte moves in with Rupert.

We’re almost out of our front door 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 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 I was. 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 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 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 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.

“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 hes 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.


One of the problems for a girl meeting her mother for the first time as a fully grown adult is what to wear. Billie’s the owner of a company. I don’t want to put her off. So the next day — another rainy London day — I go to Laura Ashley, where I settle on a dark blue dress with a white lace collar, as per Charlotte’s suggestion.

When I get home, I find Mum in my kitchen. She has been at the flat all day, throwing out stale food, washing and ironing my clothes, and cleaning dirty ashtrays. Unspeakable chaos has been transformed into order. I’m so grateful, for a moment I can’t speak.

Mum’s wearing the shiny plastic apron she gave me for Christmas, which she must have found at the bottom of my cupboard. It’s got a bowl of fruit on it.

“Oh darling,” Mum says. “You’re absolutely soaking wet. Why didn’t you wear a raincoat?”

“I couldn’t find it, and I was running late, so…”

“It was under the bed,” she says. “I hung it up. Oh, darling. Come in, for goodness sake.”

I don’t move. My throat aches with the strain of trying not to cry. I know this thing I have to do is hard for her, whatever she says.

“I’m so sorry, Mum, about the birth mother thing,” I say, finally. “I’m sorry I have to do it. You do know it doesn’t mean I don’t love you, don’t you?”

I long to hug my mother, but I know she won’t like that. She’s wearing her light blue cashmere jumper, and I’m dripping all over the rug.

Mum goes to the cupboard, gets out one of the towels she folded an hour before, and hands it to me. Then she goes into the kitchen, puts on the kettle, and takes a roast chicken from the oven. Hugged or not, I feel calmed by her presence, and I eat my first full meal in days.

“You did this when you were a baby, you know,” Mum says.


“You stopped eating.”


“Yes. They took you to a foster home at first, because they weren’t sure you’d make it. Apparently, there had been some sort of trauma at your birth, and you were reacting badly, and they didn’t want to give us a baby that might die, because it could be upsetting. It was probably nothing. You know how dramatic the Americans can be.”

I smile. So does she.

“Anyway, for whatever reason, they took you to a foster home and said we could either wait for you, or apply for another baby, if we preferred.”

“God, I’m glad you didn’t take them up on that!”

“So am I, darling.” Mum smiles at me and pats my hand across the table.

We sit quietly for a moment. I’ve never heard this story before. I don’t want her to stop talking.

“What was the trauma, Mum?”

“They wouldn’t tell us,” Mum says. “Only that it was life-threatening. I told Mrs. Dillard that we would take our chances, and she said that, in that case, I could go and visit you at the foster home. You were so tiny, and I felt so big, and I had no idea what to do with you. But when I did pick you up, it felt quite natural, and we both calmed down.”

Just like today. I look across at the kind, wise face of the mother I’ve known all my life, and my heart hurts.

“I went to the foster home every day after that, and fed you your bottle, and you’d stare at me while you were drinking your milk. I told you that everything was going to be all right, and you hung onto my finger for dear life.

“Each day, when it was time for me to leave, I gave you a kiss. And you clung to me, and I held your tiny heart against mine and felt it calming down until you fell asleep. The foster-care people said your condition started to improve after I started visiting you. Within six weeks you were home, and our new family had begun.”

As Mum talks, she’s a young woman again. She’s not with me in the kitchen.

“But then,” she says, “on your first birthday, something happened, for no reason I could ascertain. It was as if, after weighing everything up, you decided that the world was a safe place after all, and you stopped fussing and clinging whenever I went out, and simply decided to be happy. You were a very easy child after that, and not just with me, with everybody.”

I ache with love for this woman I can’t quite reach. Mum and Charlotte have always managed to click quite naturally. Perhaps it’s because Charlotte grew in her tummy and I didn’t. I don’t know.

“Darling,” she says, “nothing can affect our feelings for each other, whatever happens.”

We don’t say “I love you” in England. I think the British find it embarrassing, generally speaking. Right now, I wish Mum and I were Americans, so I could tell her I love her. Straight. Just like that. But we’re not. And Mum would hate it. So I don’t.

“The woman at the agency said I should take it slowly, not jump in.”

“Nonsense!” Mum says. “You’re a jumper! Just like at the pool. You’ve always preferred to plunge right in.” In some ways she knows me better than anyone.

I don’t say anything — we both know that she and Charlotte pussyfoot around the sides of swimming pools that are 85 degrees, dipping their toes in and out, taking half an hour to get in up to their waists.

I grin at her. She smiles back. She looks sad, for a moment.

I rise and scrape the chicken bone off my plate. Mum puts on a pair of yellow plastic washing-up gloves, picks up the Fairy Liquid, and starts on the dishes. I dry and put them away in the cupboard. When we’re finished, there’s no clutter to be seen. The kitchen looks cleaner than it has in months, and I am greatly comforted by it.

From The English American by Alison Larkin. Copyright 2008. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY. For reviews and additional info, go to The audio book, read by the author, is also available for immediate download from


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