4 Novels that Get Adoption Right

In celebration of National Adoption Awareness Month, an adoptee offers some suggested reading.


November is both National Adoption Month and National Adoption Awareness Month. National Adoption Month was established in 1995 by President Clinton to bring attention to the many children in foster homes waiting to be adopted. National Adoption Awareness Month strives to raise awareness about adoption both among the adoption community itself and the wider public in general.

As an adoptee, I know there are many misconceptions about adoption that still linger in the popular imagination. As an author, I regret that the majority of adoption novels being published today often promote those misconceptions.

The good news is that there are some novels that do get adoption right. The bad news is that I could only come up with four.

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady. Rank (aka, Gordon Rankin Jr.) is the adopted son of deeply religious Sylvie and his namesake, Gordie, a belligerent and combative sufferer of “Small Man syndrome” who takes great delight in the latent violence presented by the bruising brawniness of his over-sized son. One day, Rank stumbles upon a novel written by a college friend and is surprised to find that he is its anti-hero. Written as an epistolary novel for the internet age, The Antagonist is composed of Rank’s one-sided defense of himself in a series of emails that he writes to the author. In a poignant exploration of his life, Rank explores how his nature was subverted by his nurture, as his father took advantage of his large stature to mold him into the brutish man his vindictive elder always wanted to be.

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies. Adoption is by no means the central theme of this brilliant novel-in-stories. But as a sweeping depiction of the Chinese-American experience, it naturally encompasses one particular facet: the adoption of Chinese babies by Americans. (The novel also presents the story of Vincent Chin, who was adopted, but in China, to Chinese parents.) In the final story, which skillfully weaves together the threads of the three preceding and seemingly unrelated stories, a mixed-race Chinese-American man and his Caucasian wife wait in Guangzhou to meet the baby whom they will take home as their own. Over one sleepless night, he considers the ethical implications of their mission to adopt a Chinese baby in a procedure that skims the boundaries of human trafficking.

A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee. Exploring the classic themes of otherness and assimilation, this complex, powerful novel is one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors. Franklin Hata is a respected member of a tony New York town where he lives a highly regimented life of regular walks and laps in the pool. But he has a haunted past that includes his estranged adopted daughter, Sunny. In a series of flashbacks, the reader is taken back to the mistakes he made with Sunny, and even further, to his own upbringing as the adopted ethnically Korean son into a prominent Japanese family, and then his experiences as a medic in the Japanese army during World War II, when he falls in love with a Korean sex slave. Franklin has the adoptee’s (and the immigrant’s) abiding need to fit in, to be respected, to be accepted, a need that drives him to alienate those he cares about the most, including Sunny. Sensing that her father adopted her in order to complete his picture-perfect life, Sunny rebels against the regimented existence he expects her to lead. After Franklin loses her to his rigid expectations of how a father and daughter should be, he must confront his own past before he can try to repair their relationship.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam. Many books about transracial adoption depict the white adoptive parents as one-dimensional caricatures, well-meaning, perhaps, but clueless and unable to understand the challenges facing their POC child. Alam takes a much deeper dive, making the parent the main character of the novel, not a broadly sketched supporting character. Through his masterful depiction of Rebecca, a somewhat self-centered, wealthy white woman, Alam takes the reader inside the mindset of the adopter, who sees herself as a do-gooder savior, much like her hero, Princess Di. This novel cleverly uses the subject of transracial adoption to draw a clear-eyed portrait of white privilege and the damage it does to minorities, even by those who characterize themselves as progressive liberals who only have love in their hearts.

A rare bout of modesty prevented Alice Stephens from including her own novel, Famous Adopted People, on this list.

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