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Charlotte van Katwijk guards herself like a secret. Kids are cruel, and she knows if they find out she’s adopted, she’ll be a bully’s easy target.

When they are fourteen, Charlotte’s best friend’s mom commits suicide. It triggers in Charlotte a sense of urgency to find her birth mother before it’s too late, and the answers to her burning questions are taken to the grave.

Seven years later, a tormented Charlotte comes face to face with her past. Will discovering more about her biological parents, and the circumstances surrounding her relinquishment, be enough to lay her demons to rest?

'Umbilicus' is a coming-of-age story set in South Africa’s biggest port city during the dying days of apartheid. The tumultuous zeitgeist of the era mirrors the inner turmoil of an angst-ridden adolescent as she grapples to form an identity and find her place in the world.


'Umbilicus' will appeal to readers of all ages who enjoy Young Adult (YA) realistic fiction, particularly those involved or interested in the adoption experience.

157 pages, ebook

First published May 31, 2016

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About the author

Paula Gruben

1 book27 followers
Paula Gruben is a professional writer, born and bred in South Africa, now based in Ireland.

She was put up for adoption as a newborn in 1974, under the highly secretive closed adoption system, which was common practice for young, unwed mothers at the time.

Paula had a happy, carefree childhood, but knowing virtually nothing about her biological roots resulted in a crippling identity crisis during her teenage years, manifesting in all forms of anti-social and self-destructive behaviour, and ultimately a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her adoptive parents.

When she turned 21 in 1995, Paula was granted access to her file at the Durban Child and Family Welfare Society, which had facilitated the adoption. She met her birth mother shortly thereafter, and her birth father two years later. The seed for writing a book about her remarkable adoption journey was planted, but then life took over.

It was only when faced with the shock of an unplanned pregnancy, just before turning 36 in 2010, that Paula could fully empathise with what both her birth mother *and* adoptive mother must’ve gone through at the time she entered their lives. The seed started germinating at a frantic pace and, armed with the wisdom of age, Paula knew it was finally time to tell the story.

'Umbilicus' is her debut novel.

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Sharon.
53 reviews7 followers
June 7, 2016
As an adoptive mother, this was not an easy read for me. I cried and was quite tearful throughout the book. It’s highly emotional and really gives you a front row seat to one woman’s struggle to find her identity, her sense of self, among the secrecy and bureaucracy of closed adoptions in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
I give this book a solid 5 star rating as it was hugely insightful for me as an adoptive mother! And I’d encourage anyone who is involved in adoption in anyway, or forms part of the adoption triad in anyway, to read it, whether you be a birth parent, an adoptive parent or an adoptee.
You can read the FULL review here:
Profile Image for Lu.
500 reviews110 followers
August 8, 2016
Charlotte was put up for adoption as a baby and then subsequently adopted. Her family has always been open about this fact, but Charlotte still feels alone – still feels out of place in her own family – like a big part of her is missing. Who are her birth parents? Why did they give her up? Who is she supposed to be and how would her life have been different if she wasn’t adopted? These are a lot of questions and feelings for any teenager to deal with. No wonder Charlotte acts out. This novel follows her progress from a rebellious teenager to a young adult who finally finds some answers. What answers and how, is something you will have to read and find out!

Even though I don’t have any experience with adoption, I have always found it a very interesting topic – and now that I’m pregnant I find this topic even more relevant. I have a few friends who I know are adopted and I have always wondered what they must be going through or if it even affects them at all. What I have come to realize is that it must be different for each person. That is why I think a book like this is necessary – so that adoptees know they are not alone, that others feel like them or even different.

I found this story interesting on a lot of levels. Firstly, it is autobiographical and there is something about knowing that this is someone’s life story that makes you connect to it. Secondly, the novel deals with a whole host of themes: adoption, rejection/acceptance, teen angst, suicide and unwanted pregnancy. Thirdly, this novel makes you feel! Fourthly, I love that it is set in South Africa, specifically Durban as my husband is from there and I can relate to a lot of the places mentioned in this novel. Lastly, I was left wanting more, wondering what is next?!

I hope Paula does write a second book. I need to know what happens in the next 20 years of her life! I also need to mention that I really love the cover. It is very unique and really tells the story!

If you are in the mood for something a little different, or are adopted, or know someone who is – this book will help shed some light on the topic.
Profile Image for Mary Gambutti.
Author 9 books9 followers
January 18, 2023
A remarkable work!

I devoured this unique book, relishing the hybrid structure of memoir/autobiographical novel. I am in awe of 2nd person point of view to narrate self-talk, the smooth flow of dialogue, and the use of epistolary -- intimate correspondence -- to seemlessly move the story along. These themes are close to my heart. I was born and adopted in South Carolina. Archaic adoption laws and the stigma of secrecy and guilt blocked my access to my truthful identity and heritage before the days of DNA discovery. And it would take a record breech and my determination to find my first mother. These tender stories highlight the harms of restrictive adoption laws, and the heartbreak of natural and adoptive mothers. The title and cover art depict that connection, as well as that of the adoption constellation of parents, families, and the social worker; obliged to enforce contact restrictions. I highly recommend Paula Gruben's book to the adoption community and beyond. -- Mary Ellen Gambutti, 'I Must Have Wandered: An Adopted Air Force Daughter Recalls'.
Profile Image for Satine.
6 reviews
April 26, 2017
This was definitely one of those 'Everything else can wait until I'm done with this book' moments.

Being an avid follower and supporter of Paula through following the process of this amazing life-project, I am so proud and excited to suggest Umbilicus to everybody, regardless of being involved in any form of; the adoption process, friends with, curious about, or simply wanting to experience first hand the trials, tribulations and positive experiences an adoptee experiences.

I myself, have grew up with friends who were adopted or have been through foster care and shelters. My empathy, and love to them was endless, however, they were incredibly shy/scared of others knowing their story, never mind understanding it.

High school especially can be daunting, worse so, what happens afterward; at the beginning of the rest of their lives.

Seeing the paths and decisions chosen by Paula sets a great example, as well as a little subconscious voice in the form of an angel on your shoulder to help show you the way.

Over and above, apart from the general populace (young adults especially) I personally would mostly recommend this book to the family members or friends surrounding cases like these, to better understand how their input would be appreciated. i.e.: Those who miraculously find themselves in between both parties, with neither child or biological parents being aware.
It's such a tricky situation to be in.

I myself have 4 half sisters (Yup, my father has 5 daughters, 5 different women), 2 of them was given up for adoption before my Father could be part of the decision.
One of the other sisters literally grew up with me (Her parents being family friends) completely unaware that she was my sister. It was very tough. Even more so for her finding out at age 16 by accident.

The second eldest we got in contact with when I was 11, she 17...that caused a lot of ruckus and a story for another time)

The last 2 that were adopted, I met one of them a few years ago, we arent close. And the last one, my extended family knows her. But she, somewhere in her early 40's, completely unaware that she's been adopted.

Well, as you can see, this book was close to my heart.

3 hieps and a massive hooray to Paula for taking on this project, it must've been heart-wrenching at times. But here you are. WELL DONE! Here's to healing.

Profile Image for Wεทchy ¸.¸. ҉¨.
60 reviews13 followers
July 20, 2016
The character, Charlotte and I are roughly the same age. I could identify with the person, the culture, the language and what living in South Africa was like as a teenager growing up during the time period the book is written in.

Many of us question who we are, what we are about, what are our details? .. and what am I going to be when I grow up? Charlotte is no different, except that Charlotte knows she is adopted and therefore has some extra questions that need answers.

I found Charlotte to be a strong character, honest about her weaknesses and flaws and open to forgiveness and truth. Charlotte's adoptive parents showed a little less emotion than I expected to the subject matter. They seem emotionally unavailable and cold to her needs throughout the book and I questioned why they adopted two children at all.

There was never any doubt that Charlotte would go in search of her biological parents and find them. This girl has got what it takes to make dreams come true. There is an inborn focus and drive that allows you to cling to the character, cheering her on towards the conclusion.

Charlotte's birth mom and dad appear much more willing and wanting of Charlotte and there is a very authentic feeling of a story coming full circle.

For what could be perceived to be a heavy psychological subject to read about, it is an easy, but emotional read. I recommend this book be available to young adults as a means of educating without preaching. It opened a wonderful, open dialogue between my 17 year old daughter and I.

Umbilicus by Paula Gruben is a self published book, which in South Africa, shows our character's courage once more.

A copy of the book was made available to me, in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Raymond Strodl.
74 reviews
July 4, 2016
Mother's and daughter

This was a very interesting read which takes you on a young girls journey of discovery that is personal, emotional and very intimate.

I loved the honesty and truth in this authors story which gives an insight into the world of the adopted child that was completely new for me. While I know this story is biographical and based on real people her characters were well rounded and popped into life as real, living and breathing people who were never two dimensional of over romanticized.

I personally do not like the use of letters to move a story forward but these were a very necessary part of this story and even this worked for me.

Many men may find this story too emotional and personal, but even though this book is far from my usual reading preference or genre I found it a refreshing, interesting and easy read.

This book will appeal to any one interested in relationships and family and should be required reading for any one contemplating adoption. It would also be a powerful read which will provide insight for any adopted child, or sibling or friend of an adopted child.
Profile Image for Robyn.
158 reviews8 followers
October 19, 2017
Umbilicus is an autobiographical novel by South African author Paula Gruben. Following Charlotte, the reader is taken on the journey she endures in discovering who she really is, and the impact that meeting her biological parents has on her life.

I picked up Umbilicus and started reading it on 4 August but ended up putting it down at the end of Chapter one, only to return to it a month later and finishing it in one day. I am glad I waited until I felt ‘ready’ to read it – having a half-sister who was put up for adoption there have been many questions I’ve asked myself over the years which I think I now have a little more clarity on.

Paula has a very strong presence in creating awareness about adoption, this calling she seems to have for educating and guiding or supporting people carries through to Umbilicus seamlessly. Throughout the book she provides a thorough and genuine story line, facing the challenges that are of those who are involved in an adoption – biological parents, adoptive parents and the child.
Profile Image for Phillipa.
726 reviews16 followers
June 9, 2016
I share a group of friends in common with Paula and thru that discovered her blog. And it's there that I avidly followed the story of her story turning into a book. So when it was finally available I grabbed myself a copy and put the book I was reading on hold.

I raced thru this book, I reckon if I'd had the time I could've easily gone cover to cover in one sitting! It's a fascinating, heart-wrenching, uplifting story that is easy to read. It certainly tugged on my new" mom" (she's 14months, but every day is still new!) sentimentality.

I think she has been very lucky that the experience of meeting her birth parents was a positive one. It is an emotional experience & decision that, I think, no one who hasn't been in the situation could ever understand. But I found the level of affectedness experienced by all the people involved is something we can all learn from and empathise with.
Profile Image for Phillipa Mitchell.
Author 25 books46 followers
August 25, 2016
What a beautiful, beautiful book. What a heart wrenching journey to have traveled. Not once in my (rather long) life have I ever sat down and contemplated what it must feel like - as an adopted child - to not know where you came from, and to not know where you're going - as Paula did - until she found herself when she found her biological parents.

The letters from her adoptive and biological parents were my favourite things. The letter she wrote to her son at the end is simply wonderful. One day he is going to read it, in all his completeness, and know how precious he has always been. What more could a child ever ask for? How many parents are blissfully unaware of the importance of validation?

I still find it quite incredible that the most confusing, unsettling and trying times in our lives can lead to the most inspiring books. Umbilicus is one of them.
Profile Image for Sandra  Valente.
173 reviews33 followers
May 25, 2017
The subject matter is a serious one, and I did enjoy reading Umbilicus. However, I'm not quite sure how to voice what I want to say, but I was expecting more, wanted more, wanted to feel...more. At certain instances, I simply felt short-changed. Certain scenes could have been further developed, fleshed out, given me more of that gut-wrenching angst Charlotte must surely have been feeling. I felt like she didn't want to share too much of her pain, which kind of frustrated me. Overall, it was a good book.
Profile Image for Gari M..
Author 1 book
February 6, 2017
Umbilicus is the account of a young woman's road to an understanding of the where, what and how she came to be fostered and grew up as an adoptee. Gruben's factual cutting honesty in her account of a trying and testing time, complexing coming of age with a balanced understanding of what it is that fortifies or strips the measure of being each of us attempts to juggle, gives the reader a true insight into the challenges faced by people born into such circumstances.
Profile Image for Karen Cockerill.
294 reviews
June 1, 2017
The beginning of this book was difficult to read - not in terms of the language more the content especially if you are considering or have adopted. I loved reading the different perspectives within the journey of adoption. Full circle journey which makes it a worthwhile read for anyone interested in or dealing with adoption. There is surprisingly little written in this area.
Profile Image for Vernice.
336 reviews116 followers
January 31, 2017
A very informative and poignant memoir about adoption. I'm not a big fan of the writing style, but it was a really easy read and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a tear in my eye.
Profile Image for Monique Snyman.
Author 29 books124 followers
June 22, 2016
Umbilicus by Paula Gruben is a heartfelt (true) tale of a girl who is trying to find her birth parents during a time when it's almost impossible to find out anything after an adoption's been finalised. And while this is going on, Charlotte is trying to figure out who she is, where she fits into, what her future holds. Set in South Africa during the Apartheid Era, the reader is transported to an ugly time and place for everyone remotely different. But Charlotte is strong, determined, and she won't take no for an answer.

I had an inkling of what to expect from Umbilicus, but I didn't expect the emotions that came along with it. I mean, every kid has questions about who they are, what parent they look like, where they come from, etcetera. But it's difficult for adoptees to find those answers, especially when the adoption is a closed adoption. And personally, I don't know how a person can grow when they can't get the answers to those haunting questions. It makes Umbilicus rather enlightening on the subject. Furthermore, to watch Charlotte grow into an adult and watch her face her past is quite moving.

I really enjoyed it.

That said (and for full disclosure's sake), I have to point out that I did find some grammatical errors in the book. The story is strong enough not to let the mistakes hinder the reading, but with my keen eye I tend to find fault when I really don't mean to. However, I feel this is a solid book with a strong message. Whether you're an adoptee, an adopted parent, or neither, I suggest you pick this one up to get a better sense of what these kids go through.

Also ... for full disclosure's sake ... I may have teared up at times, which in itself is a remarkable feat to achieve. :-)

Review originally posted at:
Profile Image for Gigliola Conte-Patel.
79 reviews1 follower
January 6, 2017
I found this book very easy to read although Charlotte's voice is written in the second person which does take some getting used to. The book is also well written and well paced. What I enjoyed is the sense that I was allowed to experience something very personal with all the characters involved. This was conveyed well via the use of letters written to narrate their experiences. I especially enjoyed learning more about the adoption triad, it's something that needs to be confronted if you're involved in one. There's a saying " You're as sick as your secrets" , this book really reminded me of how keeping secrets to protect people often does the exact opposite.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
June 3, 2023
A very raw, emotive and beautifully honest book about a young woman's journey of discovery, not just of finding and meeting her birth mother but also of who she is and where she came from. While many stories of adoption don't come with a guaranteed happy ending or beginning, I believe that this book has the potential to greatly help adoptees and both adoptive and biological parents as they navigating their way through their own stories. Highly recommended.
1 review
February 5, 2017
This is a very unreadable book. I don't recommend it nor do I think it adds much to adoption literature. I must admit I couldn't finish it, and I leafed through it hoping to find sections that would capture my heart. I was not successful.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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