Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Boston 1968. Rose Moroney is seventeen, smart, spirited - and pregnant. She wants to marry her boyfriend. Her ambitious parents have other plans. She is sent to Ireland, their birthplace, to deliver her daughter in a Mother and Baby home - and part with her against her will.
Dublin 2013. Martha Sheeran's life has come undone. Her marriage is over, and her husband has moved on with unsettling speed. Under pressure from her teenage daughter, she starts looking for the woman who gave her up for adoption more than forty years before.
As her search leads her to the heart of long-buried family secrets, old flame Paudie Carmody - now a well-known broadcaster - re-enters the frame.
The American Girl is the third novel from Irish author Rachael English who has been compared to Maeve Binchy and Maggie O'Farrell. These are quite hefty comparisons to make given the high regard said authors are held in but as I read this book I could see the acclaim was justified. The cover for The American Girl is stunning in its simplicity and as I quickly read through the blurb before beginning to immerse myself in the story I could see the author had tackled a subject which for far too long has been taboo in Ireland. This is a story that needed to be told and in doing so Rachael has brought to light some of the many injustices young women in Ireland suffered for so many years. This subject of young girls being 'sent away' when they have fallen pregnant has hit the headlines once again here in Ireland upon the discovery of what just went on behind closed doors in these mother and baby homes run by what everyone believed were kindly nuns doing God's work but that was not always the case. The information that has come to light has been horrific and devastating and should never have been allowed to happen.
Through telling Rose's story with such sensitivity and tact and from all points of view the author has provided a voice for the women who went through such trauma forced upon them due to the strict rules and regulations as outlined by the church. She also shows how families themselves having to cope with outside pressures from a social and religious perspective felt no other choice but to cover things up for the sake of status and appearances. The American Girl is a beautifully written novel full of heartbreak, loss and despair and one wonders whether can forgiveness and acceptance ever be possible given all that has gone before?
The story begins in Boston in 1968 and I wondered would we remain in or around that time period for the majority of the story? But once all the facts and the back story had been outlined we shifted to 2013 and at other points we went back and saw what happened in the in between years. I like how the author did this as it really helped to build up an overall picture of the wider situation, it also demonstrated the stark constants and in some ways similarities between society today and in the past. Some things have changed drastically and others stay very much the same. Even when I was discussing this book with a friend on Twitter we commented on how much of a hold the church had on all aspects of people's lives many years ago. She said she was thankful that was not the case now but is it really? I know the church does not exert the same power it once held but still same things have not changed and will take some time to do so.
Rose Moroney is the youngest of six born into an Irish American family. It is a time of great change in America and people are struggling to come to terms with the recent assassination of J.F.K but Rose is young and in love and wants to spend all her available time with her boyfriend Joe Brennan. Any snatched moments that they can be with each other are taken and long afternoons are spent hidden away in his sisters apartment. Rose is shocked when she discovers she has fallen pregnant and given her parents strict opinions and beliefs she is fearful of telling them. Needless to say when her competitive sister Nancy discovers the pregnancy she can't run quick enough to tell her parents. Rose's mother Grace believes Rose has thrown her life away on a whim - a solution must be found and that solution is taking Rose away to her aunt in Ireland who just happens to be a nun and working in a mother and baby home. I felt Rose was given no chance to state her opinion or asked to say how she felt about everything. The decision was completely taken out of her hands and all because of the humiliation that would be brought on her family. It was of the utmost sin for this to happen to Rose and apparently she should have known better. Her parents showed her no compassion although I could sense her father wavered a bit bringing his beloved daughter across the Atlantic Ocean and leaving her to deal with one of the most important events in her life all alone. Yes I did think her parents were cruel and knowing so many others have found themselves in the same position and have been treated in the same way simply beggars belief. Being liberal and standing up for one's daughter didn't seem to feature in the minds of many back then appearances and obeying the rules of the church seemed more important and that makes me angry.
I had nothing but sympathy for Rose as she endures the home where the nuns believed they were saving lost souls and curing selfish, despicable behaviour. I felt the raw horror Rose experiences as she realises she has more or less being duped and her beloved baby is being taken away from her and she must go back to her normal life in Boston. How any mother and I know there were many could go through this when all they wanted to do was hold their baby in their arms I do not know. Why was nothing done about it at the time? Again the rules and regulations are the answer. I really felt the author got right inside Rose's head and we experienced all the pain and heartache she was going through and unfairness and injustice. How could anyone go back to their life and pretend that everything was all all right and continue on as if nothing had happened when surely it must have been eating them up inside day by day? Given the story was told from two perspectives that of Rose in 1968 and that of Martha in the present day one aspect could have been stronger than the other, the reader could have identified with one more than the other. Thankfully this wasn't the case and I thought both sides were as strong as each other and equally as well told.
We first meet Martha in 1985 where she is constantly teased for being adopted. It's not easy growing up in a small town but best friend Cat is always there for her and together they long to escape the confines of a place where everyone knows each others business and is not afraid to shout it out. Martha always had a long held fear that her mother abandoned her because she simply hadn't wanted her. She loves her family and parents Delia and Clem yet there at the back of her mind is that niggling feeling where is my mother? Why did she give me up? Her history will shape the woman she becomes in the future. It will always haunt her until she finds the answers she so desperately craves.
As we follow Martha's journey we meet her in 2013 and at a cross roads in her life. She has been separated from Dermot for two years and now it is just her and 16 year old Evanne. Evanne to me was not your typical teenager she was full of sense and not out to cause trouble or hassle. She was adjusting to her new family situation and was looking forward to having a new sibling given that Dermot's girlfriend Layla was pregnant. Evanne had a sensible head on her shoulders and I'm glad the later half of the book didn't descend into what normally happens with this family situation where there is fighting and a constant battles of wills with teenage children. The author did write well of the contrast between the family situation in the present and that of where Rose found herself so many years earlier. Evanne could see her mothering was struggling and becoming discontent and in a way isolating herself and I am glad she took the bull by the horns and decided the answers so desperately needed she was going to find.
I'll admit I did find parts of the later half of the story floundered a bit for me until we got to the real climax of the book, there were chapters where I felt nothing happened and the story didn't seem to move on. Martha seemed so indecisive and needed a big push otherwise she would have remained in the same state forever. Paudie Carmody an old school friend coming back on the scene didn't really help me engage with the wider picture even though I know it helped Martha see things a bit clearly. It was only as answers came to the fore and the truth began to make itself known did the book pick up again and I loved all the twists and turns and secrets coming to the fore after being suppressed for so long. There were quite a few I didn't see coming and I was just as surprised as the characters themselves. Just like Rose and Martha I was angry at what had happened. It all seemed to needless and although people believed it was all in the name of love one wonders was that the case.
The mother/daughter relationship was brilliantly explored throughout the story and shows how the bonds no matter how broken or weak will always come shine through in every sense of the word. It's been well over two years since the last book from Rachael but The American Girl was well worth the wait. Such heart and soul has gone into the writing of the story and it's evident the author wanted to do it's themes justice and she certainly has.The characters became so real I felt I knew them in real life and I was sad to leave their story behind when I turned the last page.The American Girl is an emotional read but well worth you taking the time to do so.
Many thanks to Rachael English for sending me a copy of The American Girl to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.