The image of a long-lost child suddenly showing up on the doorstep of his or her birth mother is a common one in fiction, not to mention on television talk shows. In WHERE WE BELONG, Emily Giffin manages to start with this potentially cliché-ridden idea and turn it into a thoroughly original one.
"WHERE WE BELONG is a compassionate novel whose main characters constantly consider not only their own well-being but also the thoughts and feelings of others. This generosity of spirit will speak to readers, who will certainly feel similar compassion for Giffin's well-drawn, sympathetically real characters."
Marian Caldwell has it all: perfect hair, a fantastic body and expensive clothes, not to mention a great job as the headwriter of a popular television show, a Manhattan penthouse apartment, and a handsome, charismatic and wealthy boyfriend. Marian's life is not all as it seems, though. Her boyfriend is commitment-phobic, her TV program is in constant jeopardy, and she's been living under the weight of a huge secret for the past 18 years.
But when that secret --- in the form of her daughter, Kirby --- shows up at her apartment late one evening, Marian is suddenly forced to confront the secrets she's kept and the lies she's told to nearly everyone. Only her mother knows that she gave birth to a baby girl the year after she graduated high school. Her father doesn't even know, nor does her current boyfriend. Not even Conrad, the father of the child, is aware. Spurred on by Kirby's questions and her own lingering sense of unease, Marian finally starts to come to terms with the choices she made all those years ago.
As for Kirby, she's always known she was adopted, but it isn't until she approaches her own graduation from high school that she even starts considering the possibility of searching out her birth mother. However, a growing sense of being different from her adopted family and questions about what her own future might look like spur her toward wanting to find answers about where she comes from. Perhaps gaining a stronger sense of her origins will enable her to approach life after high school with more courage and confidence.
Giffin’s novel effectively illustrates the questions, hopes and fears at the center of both women's lives. It also convincingly offers a different portrait of a woman who gave up her child for adoption, not out of desperation but out of a complicated combination of factors that probably bears a greater resemblance to reality. Marian's material success and hidden insecurities force readers to revise their image of what a birth mother might look like. Kirby's family, too, is a refreshing change of pace; they are humble but strong, faithfully religious without seeming sanctimonious, and their reaction to Kirby's search for her birth mother is realistic and balanced. Some readers, although impressed by the depth to which Giffin explores Marian's and Kirby's experiences in alternating chapters, may wish for more insights into Conrad's inner life and history. Ultimately, though, this book is about the evolution of Kirby and Marian's relationship with each other and with their own individual lives.
WHERE WE BELONG is a compassionate novel whose main characters constantly consider not only their own well-being but also the thoughts and feelings of others. This generosity of spirit will speak to readers, who will certainly feel similar compassion for Giffin's well-drawn, sympathetically real characters.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 27, 2012