And Then I Found It
by Lisa Ritter Starr
I like reading books about adoption, but most of the books about the subject are either non-fictional stories, informational handbooks, or picture books intended to explain adoption to small children. I had almost given up believing that there are any fictional novels out there mainly about adoption -- let alone good, engaging ones -- when, perusing the stacks at the public library one day, a title jumped out at me.
The title I noticed, Then She Found Me, struck me immediately as a phrase you might hear when speaking of adoption search and reunion. I was none too happy to liberate the book from its narrow slot among dozens of other titles on the shelf to read the jacket's inside copy. It turned out that my impression was correct. Finally, I'd found a real story about adoption.
The story, about the reunion of a birth mother and her 36-year-old daughter, may contain a few too-dramatic elements. I also wonder if the depiction of the birth mother as a semi-famous eccentric woman plays upon typical fantasies people have of birth mothers in general. However, the story ends up being a good-natured, intelligent tale about the challenges and situations commonly arising in birth family reunions.
The protagonist is April Epner, the 36-year-old adopted daughter of deceased German-Jewish immigrant parents. April is working as a Latin teacher in a Massachusetts high school when she is approached while retrieving mail from her apartment mailbox. The woman who approaches her explains that she is an intermediary for someone from April's past, who wants very much to meet her. This person, the woman carefully declares, is April's birth mother.
At first, April demonstrates no interest whatsoever in meeting her birth mother. In the first two paragraphs of the book, we learn that all April knows of her birth mother is that she was 17 when she got pregnant, and this much information is more than enough for April. She explains that she has always felt grateful for being given up, because, to her adoptive parents, she was hand-selected, star-crossed, and precious. This was infinitely more appealing to her than being with a mother who, April believes, would have thought of her as unplanned and unwanted.
In addition to her lifelong indifference about her roots, April is appalled to sense that she is being sized up for some stamp of approval. She wonders why this enthusiastic stranger, who claims to be a close friend of her birth mother, is taking notes and making comments about definitely recommending April. Who is she to judge anyone? The woman picks up on April's energy and explains only that her birth mother is a famous woman, and she needed to send an intermediary to intuit April's character. She couldn't, in her current position, invite a gold-digging or attention-seeking daughter into her affluent world in the spotlight.
April learns her birth mother's name, and realizes that she knows of her as a local celebrity with her own television talk show. This is not enough to impress April, who hasn't even seen the show. April agrees reluctantly to meet the woman, thinking that, at the very least, she has nothing to lose but the tiniest smidgen of curiosity.
Their meeting at a gourmet restaurant is informative and slightly awkward, but not upsetting. April is clearly not half as enthusiastic about the reunion as is her birth mother, a gushing woman who talks too much about herself and her own success, rather than inquiring about April.
It turns out that, to some extent, Bernice has been able to keep up with April's life. Years ago, in a very unlikely turn of events, Bernice sneaked a peek at her relinquished baby's file when she visited the agency one day. She learned the name of April's adoptive parents, and by the time of their meeting 36 years later had amassed a small collection of newspaper clippings of April's life. The news of her adoptive parents' deaths was what spurred Bernice to feel it was the right time to come forward.
All April can think about, however, is how selfish her birth mother appears. She is an unmarried woman over 50 with no children of her own, and who is completely wrapped up in her own career and emotions and love life. On the one hand, April can't imagine this woman having the time and interest to seek her out. On the other hand, if Bernice was as busy and self-absorbed as she seemed, why would she seek out her birth daughter -- unless she had a genuine, unexplainable need?
April goes on with her daily life pretty much as always, only now she meets with Bernice once a week. She also receives daily phone calls from Bernice at the high school, even ones that interrupt her while she is in class. Everything that April does, it appears, is mostly to appease Bernice's desire to have April in her life. April seems, for the first third of the book, to have no personal need to keep seeing Bernice.
The character do, however, begin to unfold, and I really enjoyed this slow but fascinating process. Eventually we learn that April is not as disinterested in her biology as she initially seemed, nor was she as completely content with her upbringing. Her parents -- while loving, generous people -- were Holocaust survivors who never really emotionally recovered from their experiences in Germany. They kept an emotional distance between themselves and the world, including April.
Perhaps because of this, April is drawn to Bernice, who wears her emotions on her sleeve and keeps the line of communication open between April and herself. Also, Bernice's emphasis on each of their love lives pushes April to develop her own -- only, not in the way Bernice would like. April enjoys exercises her right to control her own life and prides herself on keeping her individuality, especially in the face of the slightly overbearing Bernice.
One of the most intriguing elements to the story, which has nothing to do with adoption, is April's interest in her school's gawky librarian. I like how the author developed the book with the theme of adoption as parallel to, but not more important than, the universal theme of the human search for love and belonging.
The elements of the story are supposed to be fictitious. However, some of them play up stereotypes that are out of proportion with reality and really need to be downplayed accordingly at this point. The depiction of the birth mother as supremely selfish is one example of such a stereotype, as is the coolly detached vision of the birth daughter, who has always felt completely whole and happy, despite the lack of knowledge about her genetic heritage. Even the element of Bernice's fame plays on a fantasy that many adopted people have of their birth parents.
The nature of the fictional story is to exaggerate each characters' qualities for the sake of clarity and conciseness. I hope that anyone who reads this fictional story takes this into account, and does not make blanket assumptions about all birth mothers, adopted people, or adopted parents.
That said, I like Then She Found Me because it asks real questions that tend to come up in adoption circles, but in a uniquely dramatic context. The theme isn't based on case studies or psychological theory. The author brings up questions such as, Is birth family really family? Where does the adopted person belong? What leads a woman with an unplanned pregnancy to choose adoption? How does this decision affect her daily life after the fact? How does it affect her child's life?
For the characters in the book, these questions are answered, to some extent at least, one by one, as they naturally come up in the course of the reunion. Each adoption situation has its own special quality and unique combination of circumstances. It is helpful to read of others who have gone through these experiences, but it is just as helpful to remember that there are no right or wrong ways to deal with each situation that arises.
April's story has a uniqueness and a life all its own. I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the complexities and challenges of dealing with family life, whatever shape it takes, as well as the single life of a modern American woman.
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