Paula McLain, whose bestselling debut novel THE PARIS WIFE is now available in paperback, remembers GREAT EXPECTATIONS as one of the most memorable Christmas gifts she has ever received. Paula spent most of her childhood in foster care after being abandoned by her parents, so it’s no surprise that she would be drawn to fellow orphan Pip from the Charles Dickens classic.
I’ve always had a thorny relationship with Christmas: there’s too much to want, too much crushing disappointment lurking in the shadow of all that desire. But every once in a while, even a humbug like me receives a gift that delivers on every front. The last time that happened was half a dozen years ago, when my then-husband gave me GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens.
But let me back up a bit. I spent most of my childhood in foster care in California. After being abandoned by both of our parents, my two sisters and I bounced from home to home, in the care of a well-meaning social worker. It was a decidedly Dickensian way to grow up. Every time a placement didn’t work out, there was heartbreak, yes, but also an opportunity for something else to happen, something good that would change everything for the better.
I don’t know how I held onto my ability to dream and hope, but I did. Sometimes I fantasized that all of my current misery would turn out to be some terrible error or mix-up. I was really royalty, the favorite daughter of a nobleman who’d somehow lost track of me. Somehow, if I could only maneuver my way there --- wherever there was --- I could reach my destiny. The curtain would part and I’d gain entrance into my real life, the one that had been just beyond my sight the whole while. That never happened, but other amazing things did. I became a reader and a writer, for instance --- and both have changed my life forever.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS was my first introduction to Dickens, and of course I couldn’t help seeing myself in Pip --- fellow orphan and idealist. He wants and imagines so much for himself, craving improvement, a better station. What finally delivers for Pip isn’t at all what he thinks will change him. He loses his idealistic fantasies and achieves adulthood, lasting affections and lasting transformation. I’ve gotten there too, in my own bumpy way. I still dread Christmas, but that ambivalence is softened immeasurably by the chance to give books I’ve loved --- like this one --- to people I love. Books that will meet and maybe even exceed their expectations!