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On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family against the Grain

3.75  ·  Rating Details ·  190 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
Mired in debt and on the run from a series of broken homes, about-to-be-divorced Debra Monroe pulls up in front of a tumbledown cabin outside a small Texas town. Its isolation—miles from her teaching job in a neighboring city—feels right. She buys the house and ultimately doubles its size as she waits for the call from the adoption agency to tell her she’s going to be a mo ...more
Hardcover, 248 pages
Published May 7th 2010 by Southern Methodist University Press
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Susan Henderson
Currently reviewing this memoir for The American Book Review.

Updated: Finishing up my review of this book and can't seem to find a place to talk about the sheer pleasure of her observations, so I'll include some of my favorites here: "I was struck by the fact a man's genitals are attractive if you want to see them, ghastly if you don't." (p. 42). "Meantime, human wisdom flickers on and off like a bad connection." (p. 89). "She was using that hypnotic, rise-fall voice you use on insane people." (
Aug 03, 2010 Christopher rated it it was amazing
Are you kidding me? I don't even know where to begin. Monroe's voice and writing style are sublime. A wide smile remained plastered on my face as I read this book, even as I was being brought to tears from the striking, human narrative. I wanted to call friends, grab strangers on the street, read entire chapters. Damn fine writing.

Jan Gerston
Sep 25, 2015 Jan Gerston rated it it was amazing
Well-written intimate memoir about the experiences, frustrations, and joys of Central Texas English professor who adopts a transracial child while rehabilitating her house on the outskirts of a Hill Country town, all the while dealing with chronic health problems. Monroe has a knack for bringing one along for a bumpy ride as if the reader is beside her on bench seat of an old pickup truck. Monroe's realization that Marie's hair would need special—and expensive—attention by a salon was reminiscen ...more
Paula Gallagher
Aug 18, 2010 Paula Gallagher rated it it was amazing
White professor and author Monroe hangs her story on the peg of her adoption of a newborn black baby, but this book is about so much more than that. Why do smart women make so many bad relationship decisions? Are they doomed to repeat history?

Monroe examines her fractured childhood and adolescence (a drunken dad, a loutish, racist, brute of a stepfather)and her denied relationship with her abused, long-suffering mother. She struggles to make her own way after two failed marriages and countless n
Aug 09, 2010 Melissa rated it it was amazing
A fantastic memoir. I love that Debra writes openly about single-mama-hood, dating, and sex. I also love how she can interpret everyday situations as if she's reading a complicated text. Her vocabulary rocks, as does her capacity for startling insight and her sense of humor. This book was great company-- like having a long, intimate discussion with my best mama-friends.
Jul 21, 2013 Myfanwy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A beautiful, heartbreaking, and hopeful book about how the family we end up living with and loving best isn't necessarily the family we were born into.
Jul 12, 2010 Stacey rated it it was amazing
This memoir is an absolute page turner while still being incredibly thoughtful, complex, and intelligent. I highly recommend it!
Aug 23, 2010 Alb rated it it was amazing
Shelves: best-of-10
This book is so beautiful and so hard to put down. There were many nights I had to force myself to put the book down and go to sleep. Everyone should read this poignant and heartfelt book.
Jun 25, 2010 Jack rated it it was amazing
Absolutely terrific.
Julie Barrett
Ordered this from the library after reading a few of her short pieces online at various sites. I like Monroe's writing style and her short essays about raising her daughter were interesting enough to seek out the memoir. She did a great job detailing her struggles, maybe too much so. At points I would get so tense & anxious for her but then would step back a bit and realize that, for the most part, she really has it together. Monroe seemed almost dismissive at times of her successes and tale ...more
Ariel Uppstrom
Jul 03, 2010 Ariel Uppstrom rated it liked it
This was an interesting mesh of writing. For this reason, I'll start with the plot and then move to the style. The story was one of interest for me b/c I've long thought about adopting and particularly a child of a different race. Whenever Debra Monroe discussed the different comments and looks she would receive from people in her small neighborhood, I felt myself getting angry and defensive. I admired her ability to simply state what happened instead of painting the people in a negative light ( ...more
Samuel Snoek-Brown
Mar 02, 2012 Samuel Snoek-Brown rated it really liked it
Shelves: recommendations
This book feels less like a single, linear memoir than like a collection of personal essays. Perhaps that's what it is -- many of these chapters were published as stand-alone essays before the book came out. But who says narrative has to follow a single, linear structure? In fact, I loved this book for its structure, which broke down what is actually a complicated web of emotional, legal, professional, and psychological dramas into easier-to-read chunks. With a story as full of trauma and of abj ...more
Jul 07, 2012 Mom rated it liked it
According to published reviews and the book jacket, this is a memoir of a single (white) woman adopting an African American child. But in fact it is more a memoir of a woman with an abusive father and stepfather, an absent mother, lots of terrible boyfriends, several bad marriages, major health problems.... She clearly loves her daughter, and her experiences with black hair, nosy neighbors and single parenthood were interesting, but unfortunately, too much bad news and an incredible history of b ...more
Feb 06, 2015 Rachel rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
i thought the writing was good, monroe's voice is honest and believable. but i was hoping for a little more on motherhood in this book. instead i felt there was a lot devoted to the author's need for sex/a man. nothing wrong with that, i was just hoping for something different based on the description of the book. i liked how in the interview with her at the end of the book she addresses why she didn't speak to race more. she says that she gives it about as much attention in the book as she give ...more
Literary Mama
"Monroe's is angsty story about interracial adoption. Her journey into motherhood is full of love and joy, and a decision she never once regrets. At her daughter's six-day check-up, she writes, "I set her on the baby scale, and I felt tremulous and awestruck at the wrenching elation of loving a child -- letting my heart exist outside my body, and, as she'd grow, letting my heart roam around the risky world." For Monroe, the world is indeed a risky place. She worries over her daughter's ...more
Nov 29, 2010 Diane rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I would've scored this higher, but I was too distracted by the timeline jumpiness. The author appeared to have organized the book into chapters by general topic. However, the impact of the book was lost when the daughter's age would flip flop between 2 years old and 5 years old and back to newborn. It wasn't really following her life; it was a more of narrations about specific topics (dating as a single mom, white people doing black hair, awful relatives, etc.)

I will say that I was extremely ple
Sep 19, 2010 Sue rated it really liked it
I was expecting a memoir about the intricacies of transracial adoption, but it was much more than that. Monroe discusses her alcoholic father and codependent mother, her own disastrous relationships, even with domineering contractors working on her house. She really conveys how it feels to be alone in the world, being a single parent with medical problems and nobody to drive you to the hospital. But it didn't feel like complaining; the story she tells is about overcoming her own past and finding ...more
Jul 19, 2010 Kay rated it it was amazing
"On the Outskirts of Normal" is a compassionate, compelling story of one woman's search to create a family and heal old wounds. While living in a small Central Texas town and teaching at a nearby state university, Debra Monroe adopts an African American infant daughter. Monroe handles the curiosity and suspicions of her neighbors with remarkable grace and absence of rancor She eventually comes to be accepted and even admired. Monroe's ability to forgive her mostly absent mother was especially mo ...more
Oct 20, 2010 Marianna rated it really liked it
Monroe's story is compelling. I admire her pluck. I know what she was up against. Personal knowledge of both the town she lived in and the town where she worked increased my respect, as neither are bastions of open-minded, liberal thinking. I did, however, find myself frustrated with her at times, wanting to scream "get over it." Not fair as I've never been abandoned by my mother or lived in an abusive relationship. And honestly she didn't have a whiny, woe is me tone. Not sure exactly why I fel ...more
Oct 08, 2011 DH rated it did not like it
Shelves: book-club
Written well enough to keep me reading, but I never did find anything in her story that was outside of normal. These days just about anything is normal in family combinations, although I realize she was living in a small Texas town which might have made her stand out as a single, professional, adoptive mother of a black daughter. I was hoping for more story about the daughter, but instead got lots of information about herself and her mother, both of whom seemed to make mostly (but not only) poor ...more
Sarah Hoyt
Jan 13, 2011 Sarah Hoyt rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
I was attracted to Monroe's memoir because we plan to adopt, most likely inter-racially, as she opted to do. At the time, I wasn't aware that she received her MA at Kansas State University in the same department where my husband now teaches, but that coincidence made her story seem even more intertwined with and relevant to our own. I appreciated her frank portrayal of her adoption experience and struggle with chronic, undiagnosed illness, but I was less interested in her roller coaster romantic ...more
Jan 22, 2011 Emily rated it liked it
This is a memoir of the author's troubled past and her inter-racial adoption. While I thought she had some interesting and unique stories to share about her life and relationships, I had a really hard time with how the timeline jumped around, especially in the last third of the book. Just when I thought we were moving on to the next sequential thing, she'd drop in a time clue that told me this was the same time she'd been describing 5 chapters ago. It was really jarring and made it difficult to ...more
Terri Rogers
May 07, 2011 Terri Rogers rated it liked it
Shelves: 2011
This is hard to review. The book is a memoir and she discusses lots of topics that were mostly...well...all of them are hard times. I feel bad she went through all those tough times. I could imagine myself sitting around talking to one of my girlfriends about any singular topic in the book but when you compile it all together it wasn't a book I particular enjoyed reading front to back. Good conversation you share with someone who loves you....not a book. That's just me anyway.
Aug 19, 2013 Amy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This author's life is a bit of a train wreck. Unhappy childhood, unhappy marriages, but I very much enjoyed the part of the book when she was in the process of adopting a baby. It was very interesting to hear the challenges she faced of raising her daughter, but when she focused on her dating life and health challenges, I lost interest. Her writing style is very unique and to the point, but overall the book was just okay.
Jun 12, 2011 Kim rated it really liked it
The only reason I didn't rate this 5 stars is that it is hard to follow date wise. I kept getting confused at how old her daughter was during certain events, current medical issues, and numerous other facts.

Other than that, I really enjoyed the story. I enjoyed her insight on things and her perseverence against all odds.
Jun 02, 2011 Claudia rated it did not like it
I thought this would be an interesting book about single-parent adoption. Ms Monroe did mention that occasionly but most of the book was about her abusive, alcoholic father, absentee mother, Ms Monroe's own abusive husbands, and her inability to have a normal relationship. I kept thinking when do we get back to the baby?
Nov 19, 2015 Jean rated it really liked it
This book was a fast read and engrossing for me. It was easy to empathize with the author raising her adopted daughter alone as I raised my daughter alone too. She sure had some crazy times, and wow talk about raising racial awareness. What was a bit distracting is the author mentions the same topics in multiple chapters; e.g. at one point I wondered if she had multiple surgeries.
Jul 13, 2010 Suzanne rated it it was amazing
Some favorite lines:

"Don't color the trees blue," Dora said, "or people will think you're wrong in the head."

"You could get us a dad like that" - she snapped her fingers "if you would focus."

"Was this me? I wondered. I liked someone's high-concept backstory, acute narrative tension, and I got sucked in?"
I was lucky enough to receive instruction from Debra Monroe at the Taos Summer Writers Conference. She is as great a teacher as she is a writer. This book is raw, tender, real. I enjoyed it immensely.
Diana Joseph
Sep 12, 2010 Diana Joseph rated it it was amazing
I love this book a lot. Debra Monroe's story about adopting her daughter is tender and moving and so beautifully written. I've read it twice already, and I can't help it picking it up and flipping it open to a random page and re-entering these people's lives.
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From Author's Website:

Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction, and two memoirs.

Her first book, The Source of Trouble, published in 1990, won the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award, and was acclaimed as a “fierce debut” that presents “ever-hopeful lost souls with engaging humor and sympathy” (Kirkus Reviews). Her second book of stories, A Wild, Cold State, published in 1995, was descri
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