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REVIEW: Where We Belong by Emily Giffin

Dear Ms. Giffin,

Decades ago, when I was a teen, I read a wonderful book by Lois Lowry called Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye. The book chronicled the teenaged Natalie’s search for her birth mother, her meeting with the woman who gave birth to her and gave her up for adoption, and ended with Natalie’s realization that she belonged with the family she’d always had.

Where We Belong by Emily GiffinI was reminded of Lowry’s book when reading your sixth novel, Where We Belong. Prior to this I had read four of your books, and enjoyed three of them, most especially Something Blue, the sequel to Something Borrowed. I was disappointed in Baby Proof, though, enough that I feel a little trepidation whenever I approach a new book of yours. Happily, Where We Belong proved enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Like Lowry’s book, Where We Belong deals with adoption, but it is written from a different perspective. Whereas in Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye Natalie meets with her birth mother late in the story, here, in Where We Belong, adoptee and birth mother meet by the end of Chapter One. The rest of the book is about what happens after that.

Where We Belong has two heroines: Marian Caldwell, a successful television producer who gave up a child for adoption when she was eighteen, and Kirby Rose, the girl Marian gave away, now eighteen herself.

The book alternates between the two characters’ first person present tense POVs and begins with Marian angling for a proposal from her boyfriend of two years, Peter. But Peter, recently divorced, is commitment-shy. The two of them have a fight and Marian takes a cab to her Manhattan penthouse. It is there, at eleven o’clock at night, that Kirby arrives at Marian’s door.

Kirby’s appearance on Marian’s doorstep is unexpected. Marian hasn’t met Kirby since she gave her away, and though she left her contact information with the adoption agency, she has never told anyone but her mother about her pregnancy. That she kept it secret from Peter, from her own father, and from Kirby’s biological father makes it hard for her to cope with Kirby’s reappearance in her life.

Kirby is a disaffected teen, envious of the attention her sister (her parents’ biological child, born after they adopted Kirby) gets. She wonders who her biological parents were, and after overhearing her parents worrying about what kind of people may have conceived her, she takes a bus from St. Louis to New York without telling them, and looks Marian up.

Because Marian concealed her pregnancy, she’s not eager to discuss it, or the biological father’s identity, with Kirby. She’s compartmentalized the pain of her loss, and she tries to compartmentalize Kirby as well, by taking her shopping at Barney’s and to see the Met instead of being truthful with her.

Of course, Kirby senses this and it amplifies her feelings of alienation. For all Marian’s success and sophistication, and Kirby’s aimlessness and disinterest in attending college, in some ways Kirby has more on the ball than her biological mother.

So neither character is immediately sympathetic, but they both become more so as they grow over the course of the novel, which goes in all sorts of interesting directions from there. We see how Marian’s secret-keeping has affected her relationship with Peter, who is the CEO of the network where she works as well as her boyfriend, her interactions with both her mother and her father, as well as her friends, and how the emergence of the truth impacts all these relationships.

We also see Kirby mature through the process of learning where she came from, realizing finally how much her family means to her and that in the end, no one knows her better or loves her more than the parents who raised her and saw her through the journey from baby to young adult.

There is an interesting contrast between the teenage Kirby and the teenage Marian, shown through flashbacks. While Marian had a better sense of direction than Kirby as a teen, she was less willing to express her individuality and more eager to please other people, especially her parents – which did not serve her well when she got pregnant by a boy who wasn’t what her parents wanted for her.

Meanwhile, Kirby doesn’t know what she wants to do with her future, but she finds it easier to be who she is, even when she doubts if anyone else appreciates the person she is. Learning the identity of her biological parents ultimately helps Kirby gain confidence, but it doesn’t change the honesty and authenticity she has from the beginning.

Kirby and the younger Marian are also contrasted with the older, goal-oriented Marian, a woman who seemingly has everything but isn’t really happy, partly because she’s concealing a huge secret and partly because she has never acknowledged to herself how much she lost as a teen. Ultimately, this is a book about the importance of being truthful, both with others as well as with oneself. It’s also about being true to oneself, acknowledging one’s needs and desires even when they don’t fit the template of the life one has built.

Where We Belong is a deeply absorbing novel and even has some romantic moments, as well as others that made me reach for a box of tissues. The emotional center of the books is Marian and her journey, rather than Kirby’s. Much as I liked Kirby, her story felt more like a subplot to me. It was Marian who had lied to so many of her loved ones and had to unravel the tangle she had created.

Though I enjoyed the book, there are a couple of issues I want to mention. The main one is that because Marian’s healing process is at the book’s center, the book is constructed in such a way that we see Marian frequently portrayed through Kirby’s POV, as well as through her own. This is problematic, since the result is that Kirby focuses on her biological parents (Marian especially) more than on her real parents and her sister.

Because of that, Kirby’s parents, while portrayed as good parents, are never fully fleshed out as characters. We know that they worry about Kirby, we know that Kirby’s dad talks too much when he is nervous and we know that Kirby’s mother feels threatened by Marian. All of this is understandable, given that Marian is a successful television producer and their daughter’s biological mother, but since the novel doesn’t take the time to flesh out Kirby’s parents, Kirby’s realization that the family who has known her all her life is the one where she belongs doesn’t have as much power as it might have otherwise. Kirby’s parents are a footnote in what is essentially Marian’s story, since even Marian’s parents get more face time.

Another, more minor issue is that although I never looked at this book as taking an anti-choice stance, I think it’s possible other readers might see it in that light. More than one character indicates Marian made a better choice when she decided against abortion. In every case, saying this fit the character but I mention this anyhow since I know it’s a hot button issue for many readers.

But even with these problems, Where We Belong is a moving book, and one that sucked me in deep. I especially liked how two such seemingly unpromising characters as Marian and Kirby both turned out to be women I could like, root for, and believe in. I loved the ways they both grew in their separate paths as a result of their meetings, I loved the way Marian began to live her life with greater honesty and authenticity, and Kirby realized how much she had to offer the world. This was a rewarding novel.

B/B+

Sincerely,

Janine

From Macmillan (Where We Belong Audio Clip):   

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

11 Comments

  1. Jennie
    Aug 15, 2012 @ 16:30:53

    Thanks for the review – I’ve been on the fence about this one. I didn’t read Giffin’s last book, and I’m not sure I find the adoption storyline that appealing, but a good book is a good book. And she is a compelling writer.

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  2. Janine
    Aug 15, 2012 @ 16:41:07

    I didn’t read her last book (The Heart of the Matter) either, but FWIW, I liked this one better than I remember liking Love the One You’re With (#5) or Baby Proof (#4). I got Where We Belong from the library because the ebook price ($12.99) is steep — you could always try that route too. I absolutely agree she’s a compelling writer. Her books are almost always hard to put down.

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  3. Leslie
    Aug 16, 2012 @ 11:12:00

    Yesterday after reading some of your review, I went to the library and saw Where We Belong on the new book shelf. Checked it out and read it last night, finishing it this morning. I reread the whole review and was surprised at the B+. I didn’t like this book so much. The first person point of view was annoying. I would have liked to have had a better sense of Marian’s and Kirby’s parents and Conrad, who was to me the most interesting character in the book. Sibling, friends and co-workers were shallow cardboard cut outs and so totally designed for plot devices that I felt were unnecessary. Peter’s ex wife and son and the actress for example.The prom stuff TSTL.
    I did like Marian and I wish the book had had a narrative in order to view her growth objectively. I found Kirby’s portrait a little unbelievable, her courageous flight to New York was contrary to who she was at home and school. She seemed lazy, physically and emotionally, so her quick transformation was hard to swallow. The span of time for this novel was only two months! Quicktoe Change Oh! If it had taken place over a longer period I might have been able to become move invested and believed Marian and Kirby’s reletionship.
    The Anti Choice stance was a little blatant, which was a turn off. I felt it was obvious that Marian couldn’t bring herself to have an abortion because she loved Conrad so much, so why keep bringing up the issue over and over. Also the secretiveness of the situation was to much to believe which brings up the fact that she never told a soul, but kept her info at the adoption agency updated. It was all too contrary for me.
    This is the first Giffin I managed to finish, and I only continued reading to meet up with Conrad again. The end was predictable and all in all I give the book a sturdy C.

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  4. Kate Pearce
    Aug 16, 2012 @ 12:11:58

    Thanks for the review, I’ve been on the fence about getting this one as well seeing as the last one (about the plastic surgeon and his wife Tessa) left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The writing was excellent as usual, but the concept didn’t grab me.
    Still on the fence now. LOL

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  5. Janine
    Aug 17, 2012 @ 02:35:44

    @Leslie: So sorry my rec didn’t pan out for you!

    I like first person present tense but I know it isn’t everyone’s cuppa. Most of the characters you mention as being flat were very minor, and hardly appeared in the book, so I didn’t expect a lot of depth from them, especially given the first person narration. I thought there was depth to Marian, her mother, her father, Peter, Conrad, and of course Kirby. That was enough for me.

    Re. Kirby, she took the Greyhound bus to New York. I could believe it of her. I never saw Kirby as lazy, just as disaffected and alienated in the way of many teens I’ve known. I also bought the change in her, in the same way I can buy the HEA of a hero and heroine who have only known each other two or three months. Emily Giffin started out in chick lit and I think she has a romantic/happy ending sensibility.

    I read Marian as having updated her information with the adoption agency because in some part of her she was burdened by these secrets, and she needed to grieve and acknowledge her loss. She couldn’t admit it to herself at first, but I can see her updating the info even without acknowledging to herself the reason she was doing so.

    Conrad was a great character, but Something Blue is my favorite Giffin.

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  6. Janine
    Aug 17, 2012 @ 02:38:36

    @Kate Pearce: I haven’t read The Heart of the Matter — I was a little afraid it wouldn’t appeal to me. Can you say what about it left you with a bad taste in the mouth?

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  7. Leslie
    Aug 17, 2012 @ 09:54:40

    @Janine: I think Where We Belong would be a good book to start off a new book club. It is the type of book that would bring about a good discussion, it’s not too long and yet it deals with interesting issues.
    Your rec definitely panned out. I am glad I read it. I agree with many of your opinions. I just didn’t care for the double first POV, among a few other things.
    My book club is crazy diverse, we are often split about books and “I can’t believe you didn’t love this book” is our official motto!

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  8. Janine
    Aug 17, 2012 @ 10:48:47

    @Leslie: Glad you don’t regret reading the book. Giffin’s books generally make good fodder for a book club-type discussion.

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  9. Courtney
    Aug 19, 2012 @ 10:26:14

    I read this book over vacation and was greatly disappointed. I found the entire book boring and never grew to care about Marian whatsoever. There was a lot of potential there, but she just fell totally flat for me. I found myself far more interested in the point of view of Lynn, Kirby’s mother, and Conrad, then of Marian and Kirby.

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  10. Janine
    Aug 19, 2012 @ 10:52:23

    @Courtney: Sorry!

    ReplyReply

  11. What Janine is Reading — August 2012
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 14:02:23

    [...] review speaks for itself, and conveys how much I enjoyed the book. But while I think there is something to [...]

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