An engrossing book, whether adoption has personally touched your life or not, A Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness by Maddie Dawson, quickly draws the reader in by its fast but easily digestible pace and inner—and outer—dialogue.
The story is told from multiple perspectives while giving the reader enough time and information to actually care about all of the characters, even the frustrating ones. Still, it maintains continuity and glued-to-the-novel readability.
As I progressed eagerly in the story, I realized that I could relate to each, and very different, character in some way. Whether their traits are actually part of who I am or something I have aspired to be in one way or another, at least in some point of my life. All are flawed, but human and fantastic in unique, often quirky, ways.
There’s a 35-year-old named Nina, the protagonist in the story: she’s desperate and needy, but driven, independent, smart, sweet and funny. She’s a “commitment-phobe” while constantly seeking to bond with her family, even extended family. A chunk of her identity swirls around being adopted, yet she ironically sees it as a sort of non-identity. She’s a duality of selfishness and selflessness, always thinking of herself while always putting others first.
Lindy is the distant and reluctant long-lost sister with the “perfect” life—a successful business, a handsome provider of a husband and three wonderful children who are quite the handful. Still, she’s missing….something.
And Phoebe, the rock star and shell of a “successful” woman whose life was largely defined by tragedy and the fact that she placed two daughters at an early age. Phoebe, who smoked too much and felt too little, except when she was lost in her music or meditation, would hesitate to call herself “bitter.” Adapted and adjusted, Phoebe would probably say, if you asked her.
There are other main characters who keep the story lively and interesting, complex and connected, but the novel is told from the perspectives of these three women. It is a tale driven by thought, self-reflection and dialogue more than action. Actual events are merely the backdrop of the psychological inner-workings of our leading cast of characters.
These women take us through the complicated emotions and physical circumstances of adoption and the search for biological families, especially in a closed-adoption context. The great thing about this book is that it provides the reader with the mindset of the seeker and those who are discovered, willingly or unwillingly, and how they all respond in different ways. However, Dawson gives the reader insight of the many possibilities for reasons biological parents and siblings may think and act as they do.
Dawson reminds us that there are always reasons, experiences that lead people to who they are and the decisions they make. But, that doesn’t automatically make them heartless villains, even if those decisions seem harsh from the outside eyes looking in. They’re only human and the product of experiences they’ve had and choices they will make along the way, both good and bad.
This book made me want to read more Maddie Dawson novels. She is masterful at pacing the story and mixing things up, so the reader doesn’t get bored with a one-sided perspective or one-dimensional characters. They’re all wonderful, and they’re all flawed.
The ending, without any spoilers, is satisfying without being over-the-top fairytale because that’s just not how life works. Still, it wraps things up nicely without leaving the “artsy” loose end that leaves readers starved for a resolution. Nina’s life remains dysfunctional but cohesive.
One last noteworthy point: the story captures the many dimensions of adoptions—both seekers and birth families. It non-judgmentally accepts and validates all emotions involved as natural and personal truth. This is a must-read for all who are adopted and birth families who are “found,” but who didn’t want to the change.
It will make you consider the situation holistically, the “big picture.” You’ll gain insight and maybe, just maybe, understand and perhaps even facilitate a real coming-together to achieve that “family happiness.” And as non-conventional as it may be, it will all be okay.