The best memoirs have voices that scythe their way gracefully through the clutching thickets of the purely personal to the cleaner, sparer landscape of the universal. Sarah Saffian's "Ithaka" -- her story of being sought out by her birth parents (the Leyders) 23 years after they gave her up for adoption as a newborn, and her struggle to fit these "intimate strangers" into her life -- hacks its way to a kind of sentimental universality with the duller blade of language gone soft with self-helpish lingo. "As much as it broke the cycle of abandonment, being found also aggravated the cycle of powerlessness: just as I hadn't decided to be given up, I hadn't had the opportunity to decide to be found, either."
The story itself is interesting. Here Saffian is, living a pretty great life at 23 -- dedicated, adoring adoptive family (tragically, her adoptive mother dies when she is 6, but, eventually, her elegant Wall Street father remarries a woman she calls "Mom," who helps raise her and her half-siblings in their Lexington Avenue apartment); dedicated, adoring boyfriend; budding career as a journalist in Manhattan. Then one day her birth mother, now married to her birth father with three children of their own, calls and suddenly Saffian "is caught between two normal families -- one I was linked to by nature, the other by nurture, but neither by both." The "Ithaka" of the title refers to Odysseus' native land, the home to which he returns.
Usually, adopted children search for their birth parents. Rarely does it happen the other way around -- in this case, her birth parents employed a searcher whose sketchy methods of tracking Saffian down are never disclosed. Over the course of three years, she and the Leyders exchange letters -- Saffian's idea as she decides whether she is ready for a face-to-face meeting. The Leyders now live in New Hampshire -- he's a draftsman, she's a potter, both attended college (though he dropped out in his senior year); they gave Saffian up because they were young (she was 21), unmarried and ill-equipped to care for a baby. The letters, some of them included in the book, are at first searching, often touching and ultimately repetitive without enough precise reflection on the author's part ("A modern dance exercise came to mind: two people stand shoulder to shoulder holding hands, and then lean out away from each other ... It is an exercise in achieving balance.") There are one too many of Adam Leyder's letters in particular, his prose style often veering into vague hippie speak ("finding you has left me feeling reborn, raw, full").
Saffian raises tricky, fascinating questions -- what exactly is the significance of giving birth to a child that you don't raise? What is genetic and what is learned? What is a family? What is a "self"? These questions lead her to take a Mensa test and a career aptitude test and, through the search process preempted by the call from the Leyders, to the adoption agency where she learns brutal facts about the business of adoption, to the birth records in the New York Public Library's genealogy room and to the Staten Island hospital where she was born. These details -- and a section in which she cuts back and forth between Hannah Leyder's decision to give her up for adoption and her own abortion during college -- are the most vivid parts of the book.
Unfortunately, many of the questions raised just hang there, unanswered. She falls back on easy metaphors, describing this quest for self-knowledge as a jigsaw puzzle falling into place; she includes an amateurish poem that she wrote in her journal; and while she makes fun of a support group she attends, her narrative is peppered with the words "journey," "boundaries" and "closure." The letters between her and the Leyders describe (again and again) healing the wounds, accepting pain and anger, growing and learning. This book shows that there is a lot to be said for growing and learning, giving voice to a story you may have never heard before. But by the end you wish that Saffian had sharpened her blade.