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Like Family: Growing Up in Other People's Houses—A Memoir

Paula McLainLittle, Brown; $23.95

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When Paula McLain was four years old, her mother left for the movies with her boyfriend and never came back. She was simply “up and gone, gone and went, winked out like a dead star.”

After a brief stay with their grandmother, McLain and her two sisters entered the overburdened Fresno, California, foster care system. Like Family chronicles McLain’s chaotic childhood: 14 years of shuffling from family to family, enduring sexual and physical abuse, and living with the constant threat of rejection. At the heart of the story, however, is her intense longing to belong, to fit into a family that will love her no matter what.

McLain is an accomplished poet, and it shows. She has an eye for detail and is particularly adept at capturing childhood observations and emotions. Recalling the first meeting with the Lindberghs, their last and longest placement, McLain writes: “We stood, the three of them and the three of us, on the grass as dry as cereal, and the noises all around—the snuffling dogs and the buzz of the air conditioner and the sprinkler pelting a row of yellow roses—seemed to be saying, Now What? Now What? Now.”
As readers, we find ourselves rooting for the McLain sisters and praying that they will enter a loving, or at least stable, family. But we are disappointed along with the girls over and over again by the cruelty and indifference of their foster families.

The book takes an even bleaker turn as the girls enter their teens—the normal problems of adolescence magnified by abandonment and sexual abuse—without the guidance of a single adult in whom they can confide. But McLain reaches beyond a foster care horror story. Her book is part coming-of-age, part meditation on family in whatever form it may take. Remarkably, the three sisters stayed together through all their placements and remain close today as adults.

While there is no pat ending, there is a glimmer of forgiveness as McLain’s mother returns toward the end of the book to establish a relationship. There is also a spark of hope as the sisters turn into accomplished women and set out to form their own versions of family.

Reviewed by Katy Robinson, author of A Single Square Picture: A Korean Adoptee’s Search for Her Roots (Berkley, 2002)


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