Larry Greenberg teaches law at an American college in London, England. He signs a new contract each year and thinks of going home to Boston, USA. He vacillates between girlfriends, skeletal Carla and the Rubenesque Devorah. Carla is English: eccentric and blank and works as an illustrator for medical textbooks. She draws a picture of him naked with a wing in place of one arm, telling him a story about a girl whose brothers were turned into swans. The girl has a limited chance to turn them back into men but doesn’t do it quickly enough and the youngest is left with one wing.
Devorah is an exiled New Yorker with every intention of going back home. Through her, Larry meets the “Un-Americans”, a group he’d put off joining when a colleague invited him. Collectively the group want to fit in but their Britishness is worn like a new coat: it looks OK in the mirror but the shoulders are stiff and the arms not quite the right length. After a dismal bring-and-share Thanksgiving, the group begin to drift apart.
When a foreign student, who cannot return to his home country due to involvement in political activism, discovers he cannot stay in England either, he turns to Larry for help. Larry’s expertise is corporate law, so he refers the student to a colleague. This sets in motion a chain of events that force Larry to choose between Devorah (USA) or Carla (England).
Through Larry, a man who could pack up his office in ten minutes and fly, Wendy Brandmark explores themes of rootless and identity. At first Larry’s disengagement and knowledge that he can always return to Boston so has a safety net, seem like advantages. He has no urgency to make life in London work, unlike his student who has no safety net or Devorah who feels claustrophobic in London’s clutter and longs for her childhood spaces. But his safety net wraps around him and becomes a barrier. Keeping his options open prevents him from committing to any of them.
“The Stray American” is a novel where everything seems to happen but everything happens. Larry is both flawed and engaging. His desires for both Carla, a distant fluttering bird, and Devorah, homely and vibrant, are credibly drawn. While Larry sees himself as putting in his hours at a college where no one is allowed to fail, his students see a professor and at least one goes on to enter a prestigious US college. Similarly his colleagues ask advice and invite him to dinners, showing Larry is more substantial then he thinks he is. He makes “The Stray American” an engaging, inviting read.
By Emma Lee