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

3.74 of 5 stars 3.74  ·  rating details  ·  110 ratings  ·  34 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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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." (...more
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.

Paula Gallagher
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...more
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.
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.
This memoir is an absolute page turner while still being incredibly thoughtful, complex, and intelligent. I highly recommend it!
Absolutely terrific.
Ariel Uppstrom
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
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
Samuel Snoek-Brown
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
Literary Mama
"Monroe's is not...an 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
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...more
"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
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
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
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
Sarah Hoyt
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
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
Laura Healy
A beautiful and brave story of surviving and thriving in the mess of modern life.
Terri Rogers
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.
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?
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.
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?"
Ms. Monroe is a fine writer. Fortunately for me, she's also my thesis advisor! If you want to read memoir with motherhood and family as the focus, I definitely recommend *On the Outskirts of Normal*. I've been thinking about my mother a great deal since I started reading this book.
Diana Joseph
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.
Dlmoore83 Moore
It's been a long time since i read a book in one sitting. This book broke that dry spell. well-written honest book - Monroe writes with authenticity and heart.
Eh, it was an ok book. Typical memoir, but hard to follow since she kept skipping around with the timeline. I skimmed the ending b/c I just wanted to be done.
Wonderful book. Some of the time transitions are a bit rough, as noted in other reviews, but a touching story with a happy ending - a rarity lately.
I enjoyed the chapter on black women's hair the best. Something I knew so little about. The author called it the white woman's anorexia.
Carolyn Phelps
A well written memoir...the parts with the daughter were the best part. The dwelling on the dysfunctional family got old quickly.
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From Author's Website:

Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction, and one memoir.

Her first book, The Source of Trouble, published in 1990, won the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, 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,...more
More about Debra Monroe...
Source of Trouble Wild, Cold State On the Outskirts of Normal Newfangled: A Novel Shambles: A Novel

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