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Essays convey range of the adoptive experience

This is a provocative and thoroughly entertaining collection of 20 essays about adopting. The definitive idea behind this assortment of voices is that there is indeed nothing definitive about adoption. It's all here in a sort of family stew: the joy, the frustration, the ambivalence, the tragedy, the humor, the redemption, and everything else in between.

Christina Frank begins the book in Hanoi, where she picks up her adopted daughter, Lucy. Frank walks around the city imagining that every young woman she sees might be the mother who abandoned Lucy. Frank has haunting questions for Lucy's mother that must inevitably remain unanswered (''Why exactly did she relinquish her baby? Does she think about Lucy now?"), and she knows these unanswered questions will play a crucial role in Lucy's life as well.

Dan Savage writes with searing honesty about the decision he and his partner make to choose an ''open" adoption, whereby they keep in touch with the biological mother. Their relationship with son DJ's biological mother proves far more challenging than Savage imagined.

DJ's mother, Melissa, is homeless and alcoholic. Savage wants her to play a role in DJ's life, but Melissa is often unable to do so. He writes about how Melissa will go missing for more than a year and then call her son from jail, about how her boyfriend dies on the streets from alcohol poisoning.

Savage never judges Melissa, but he's anxious about what DJ's reaction to the whole complex situation might be: ''Whether [Melissa] was dead or alive, we weren't sure how to handle the issue of DJ's missing mother." Savage's compassion in grappling with these maddeningly complex issues is perhaps the highlight of the whole collection.

Melissa Fay Greene admits to having terrifying second thoughts after adopting a 4-year-old boy from Bulgaria. She describes feeling guilty about not loving the boy enough, and how that powerful bond between mother and child was somehow missing. Her new son, she writes, almost ''ruined what was most precious to me on earth: my family." Greene concludes her essay by recounting the gradual process of falling in love with her new son after the initial panic wears off.

Issues of race and identity play a central role in several of the essays. Jill Smolowe tells of how her adopted Chinese daughter gets taunted in first grade by an insensitive boy who makes fun of her ''slanty eyes."

Smolowe struggles with how best to encourage Becky to embrace her heritage; she doesn't wish to force her daughter to do so, but she also realizes that Becky will often be seen as ''other" by the larger culture. Ultimately, Smolowe concludes that issues of identity must be left up to her daughter, with Mom in a supporting role.

In one of the final essays, novelist Jenifer Levin writes movingly about how her own experiences with feeling like an outcast (as a lesbian, Levin says, she ''fell into the category of other") fueled her desire to adopt two special-needs sons from Cambodia.

Levin's is a story of profound love mixed with redemptive humor and supreme patience. She apparently doesn't know how to submit to despair, and the impressive advances her growing sons achieve are a testament to the power of her love.

This memorable collection will be required reading for anyone thinking about adoption or dealing with issues related to adoption. These 20 essays can also stand proudly on their own as brilliant reflections of the challenges and glories of what really makes a family -- love.

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