The Life All Around Me by Ellen Foster

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In this sequel to Gibbons's beloved classic Ellen Foster, Ellen, now fifteen, is settled into a permanent home with a new mother. Strengthened by adversity and blessed with enough intelligence to design a salvation for herself, she still feels ill at ease. But while she holds fast to the shreds of her childhood--humoring her best friend, Stuart, who is determined to marry her; and protecting her old neighbor, slow-witted Starletta--she begins to negotiate her way into a larger world. With a singular mix of ...
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In this sequel to Gibbons's beloved classic Ellen Foster, Ellen, now fifteen, is settled into a permanent home with a new mother. Strengthened by adversity and blessed with enough intelligence to design a salvation for herself, she still feels ill at ease. But while she holds fast to the shreds of her childhood--humoring her best friend, Stuart, who is determined to marry her; and protecting her old neighbor, slow-witted Starletta--she begins to negotiate her way into a larger world. With a singular mix of perspicacity, naïveté, and compassion, Ellen draws us into her life and makes us fall in love with her all over again.
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Editorial Reviews

Lauren Collins
ince the book is structured as a monologue, its success also rests on the convincing eccentricity of Ellen's speech. There are still times when her language can charm and surprise. "If startling jolts and frenzy could be eliminated, I could almost be comfortable, the way people with reptile phobias must feel more relaxed living in Ireland," she says at one point, with an offhandedness that's nicely disarming. Too often, though, Gibbons plays up Ellen's naïveté, giving little hint that she's been much changed by her increasing interaction with the world outside her own head.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In this folksy sequel to the 1997 Oprah pick Ellen Foster, Gibbons's plucky heroine is 15 and hoping for early admission to Harvard on account of "all the surplus living that was jammed into the years." Having survived trauma and tragedy, Ellen has found safety with a loving foster mother. She sells her poetry to underachieving classmates, thereby paying her way to a camp for the gifted at Johns Hopkins, where she realizes she doesn't know "how to feel at home out in the world or at home either." She returns to North Carolina, goes to the fair, negotiates a marriage proposal from her best friend and learns that her aunt has cheated her out of her inheritance. The plot is minimal; the pleasure for fans will be in Ellen's idiosyncratic worldview and signature syntax ("The rhythm of the world out here picks up when the farmer across the road begins plowing.... Crossing the wide ditch and walking... as the ground's being turned over to expose arrowheads, which you may find one or several of, I was getting dirty in the good clothes I shouldn't have been over there in"). Even as good guys falter, readers can trust that all will be right in the end in this extended curtain call for a fondly remembered character. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In her eighth novel, Gibbons returns to the eccentric child of her first book (and the first of her two Oprah's Book Club picks). Twenty years ago, the precocious Ellen thought that if she could only live with the "foster" family, her life would be perfect. Now she's part of that family, the other foster children have moved out, and all she wants is to skip high school and go right to Harvard. There's enough background information that those who didn't read the earlier work won't be confused. Unfortunately, listeners won't be enchanted, either. The adolescent Ellen rankles, showing disgust for the people around her, and her few obviously troubled friends aren't any more believable than her foster mother or her suddenly righteous cousin. Gibbons reads the book herself, and her slow Southern drawl is appropriate, her phrasing and emphasis enlightening. In an interview included at the end, she says she hopes to follow Ellen through the rest of her life, producing books every three years or so. It's uncertain whether listeners will want to hear more.-Rochelle Ratner, formerly with Soho Weekly News, New York Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Now 15, the heroine of Ellen Foster (Algonquin, 1987) continues to tell her story. The sequel begins with a letter from Ellen to Harvard University's president, asking for early admission. She is making what she calls "an underage change in life." After the deaths of her mother and abusive father, and shuttling between homes of people who don't want her, the teen has settled with a woman who takes in foster children. She has chosen Laura as her "replacement" mother, and the woman accepts her role with love. Ellen is precocious, feisty, humorous, lovable, and vulnerable. Her decisions are not always the best, but her intentions show determination. Although her situation is sad, readers never feel sorry for her; they cheer her on, and the story concludes with a happy ending. The first-person narrative is sometimes hard to follow, but Ellen's strong, colloquial voice paints a vivid, realistic picture.-Sheila Janega, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After six intervening novels (Divining Women, 2004, etc.), Gibbons returns to the eponymous heroine of her first, Ellen Foster (1987), still plucky and brilliant but no longer beset by hard luck. The year is 1974, Ellen, 15 and about to start ninth grade, writes a letter to Derek Bok, president of Harvard University, proposing that she skip high school and head straight there. Although her best friends remain Starletta and the devoted goofball Stuart, Ellen knows she has intellectually outgrown her small southern town. Having been orphaned, lost her grandmother and been thrown out of her Aunt Nadine's house, Ellen now lives with a stable, loving foster mother, Laura. Ellen helps rid Laura of her other, more troublesome foster children by snitching to their social worker about delinquent behavior. Laura then convinces the social worker that she's up to the challenge of nurturing Ellen's fabulous IQ, and adopts her. Ellen's teachers turn a blind eye when she sells poetry homework assignments to her semi-literate classmates to earn the entrance fee to an enrichment course at Johns Hopkins; naturally, she shows up hoity-toity fellow geniuses. Meanwhile, thanks to a note from Derek Bok asking him to check on Ellen, a local Harvard-educated lawyer discovers that he's been duped by the scheming Aunt Nadine. She has forced Ellen's cousin Dora to sign legal papers as if she were Ellen. In fact, Ellen has an inheritance coming. Nadine and the pregnant Dora leave town, but first Dora gives Ellen the box Ellen's mother's left for her. Ellen finds hospital records that tell the sad story of her mother's physical and emotional heartbreak. Ever-resilient Ellen shares her material good fortune with herfriends. Then Bok writes Ellen, inviting her to attend summer school and guaranteeing her a place at Harvard in the class of 1981-on full scholarship, of course. Ellen's fortune has improved, but her charm has curdled into self-congratulatory superiority.
Chicago Tribune

"The novel's method of telling, in which Ellen herself is the story's landscape, is also its signal strength. As [Ellen] uses her considerable resources to move toward understanding--and to react, equally, to old losses and sudden good fortune--we're right there with her."
The State

"Ellen’s character and voice are the masterful writing of a strong spirit."
Washington Post

"Ellen maintains a hold on us, especially when she remembers to laugh at herself, and certainly at the novel's end, when she discovers psychiatric reports about her mother's last year. These pages, though perhaps the most sensational of her story, achieve a power accumulated over the course of two novels, through all of Ellen's suffering and longing for the severed maternal bond."
Lexington Herald-Leader

"Most stunning about the Ellen Foster series is Gibbons' conversational language, a stream-of-'70s-consciousness.... Gibbons' deft juggling of such disparate elements is the reading equivalent of a really posh bed-in-a-bag ensemble -- which, as Gibbons points out, is something Ellen would love."
From the Publisher


"Ellen Foster is a southern Holden Caulfield, tougher, perhaps, as funny . . . a breathtaking novel."- Walker Percy

"Some people might give up their second-born to write as well as Kaye Gibbons."--Time

"Filled with lively humor, compassion and integrity . . . Ellen Foster may be the most trustworthy character in fiction."--The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641871177
  • Publisher: Harcourt
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.36 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

KAYE GIBBONS is the author of seven bestselling novels. Her first novel, Ellen Foster, was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a special citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation. That novel, as well as A Virtuous Woman, was chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Gibbons lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.


In 1987, a novel detailing the hardships and heartbreaks of a tough, witty, and resolute 11-year-old girl from North Carolina found its way into the hearts of readers all over the country. Ellen Foster was the story of its namesake, who had suffered years of tough luck and cruelty until finding her way into the home of a kind foster mother. Now, some nineteen years later, author Kaye Gibbons is finally bestowing the ultimate gift on her fans -- a continuation of Ellen's story.

As The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster begins, Ellen is now fifteen and living in a permanent household with her new adoptive mother. However, Ellen still feels unsettled an incomplete. Due to "the surplus of living" she had "jammed" into the years leading up to this point in her life, Ellen feels as though she is deserving of early admission into Harvard University. However, when this dream does not come to be, she re-embarks on her soul-searching journey, drawing her back to those she left behind in North Carolina.

While it took Gibbons nearly two decades to return to her most-beloved character, she never truly let go of Ellen Foster, even as she was penning bestsellers and critical favorites such as A Cure For Dreams and Charms For the Easy Life. "She is like a fourth child in my house," Gibbons said in an audio interview with Barnes& "Ellen is really like the kid who came to spend the weekend and stayed for twenty years."

Perhaps Gibbons's close association with the little orphan is the result of her own personal connection to the character. She claims that the Ellen Foster books were "emotionally" autobiographical and helped her to come to terms with the most painful experience of her life. When Gibbons was a child, her ailing mother committed suicide -- an event that placed her on the same pathless quest for love and belonging as Ellen. The untimely death of Gibbons's mother provided much of the impetus for her to revisit Ellen in a sequel. "Before I wrote The Life All Around Me," she confides, "I wasn't obsessed by my mother's suicide, but I was angry about it... and it's something that I thought about every few minutes of the day, and I always wondered what my life would have been like had she stayed. She had extremely awful medical problems and had just had open-heart surgery, and back then we didn't know what we know now about the hormonal changes after heart surgery and the depression that's so typical after it. After I wrote The Life All Around Me, I was amazed that I didn't think about it as much as I did, and I found that I'd forgiven her and understood it."

Now that she has set some of her old demons to rest with a novel that Booklist has called "compelling and unique," Gibbons has vowed not to allow another nineteen years to pass before completing the next chapter in Ellen's story. She ensures that Ellen's adventures are just beginning and ultimately intends to tell the tale of her entire life. "I decided to recreate the life of a woman in literature," Gibbons says. "I always liked to have a big job to do... and I thought about how marvelous it would be at the end of my life to have created a free-standing woman; a walking, talking all-but-breathing person on paper." Ambitious as this project may sound, a woman who has faced the challenges that Gibbons has shall surely prove herself to be up to the task.

Good To Know

Some fun facts from our interview with Gibbons:

"I wrote A Virtuous Woman while nursing two babies simultaneously, typing with my arms wrapped around them. I turned in stained pages but never called them to anyone's attention for fear they'd be horrified."

"I got a C on an Ellen Foster paper I rewrote for a daughter's tenth-grade English class."

"Writing serious work one wants to be read and to last isn't like a hobby that can be picked up and put down, it's a lovely obsession and a very demanding joy."

"Getting involved with things that don't matter in life will get in the way of it, as they will with anything, like family and home, that do matter."

"To unwind, I watch movies and do collages with old photographs from flea markets or make jewelry with my daughter, and the best way to clear my mind is to walk around New York, where I write most of the time in a tiny studio apartment with random mice I've named Willard and Ben, though I can't tell any of those guys apart!"

"My writing is powered by Diet Coke, very cold and in a can. If Diet Coke was taken off the market, I'm afraid I'd never write again!"

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    1. Hometown:
      Raleigh, North Carolina, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 5, 1960
    2. Place of Birth:
      Nash County, North Carolina
    1. Education:
      Attended North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1978-1983
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster

By Gibbons, Kaye


Copyright © 2005 Gibbons, Kaye
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0151012040

A NYONE CONSIDERING MAKING AN UNDERAGE change in life, such as who you're going to live with, should know there's no way to avoid the government getting in on the decision, so try to be kind to the lady they'll send with a stack of tests and try to stay calm and do your best on them. I moved in here three years ago on Christmas Day of 1971, knowing as I knocked on the door that I was choosing this particular replacement for life with my mother because the foster mother, Laura, had the kind of home you'd be out of your mind not to settle into for good.

My family was either dead or crazy, so there wasn't the fall-back of concerned loved ones. In fact, my mother's sister, Nadine, who looks sane in public, had created a no-room-at-the-inn situation during her and her daughter Dora's festivities that caused me to strike out walking for Laura's house.

The next summer Laura notified the government that all was well and they could go ahead and draw up her parental rights paperwork. Lo and behold a letter arrived to say Social Service was fine with our arrangement as long as I could pass the mental stability tests meant to prove whether I was too much of a damaged goods personality to live with a nice individual permanently or if I needed to be demoted into a more routine nightmare orphan home.

When Laura noticed me at the kitchen table with the letter and a resuscitated nail-biting habit, she said, You can't prepare for tests like these, Ellen, and when I called to say it's been nothing but a joy having you here, and I think I'd know by now if I needed to be sleeping with my eyes open because you were across the hall plotting waking nightmares, the woman said the tests were mandatory but they're a formality. There's nothing to worry about unless you chew your fingers so far down you can't write the answers.

She took me in for the tests the following Saturday morning, and just as I made the last multiple choice decision on whether I'd rather watch television or play baseball the lady told Laura and me to pardon the surprise but I needed to be shut up alone for another two hours with a kind of raw intelligence test they tacked on to the mental health portion. I said it was fine, just let me go to the bathroom and sharpen my pencil, not mentioning my suspicion that this was a fresh trick.

Laura took a breath and quietly blew her words out toward the lady, telling her in a way that could sound rude if you don't imagine it correctly, Well, she's here. She's willing and more than capable. I know the government's always created a certain amount of make-work, but it's worrisome for you to double tests that don't matter.

The lady said every time the court decided a child's life, the individual had to be run through particular tests before they could more or less turn you out into a new future. Pardon her again for not telling us about yet another final detail sooner, but a letter would be coming with instructions on when and where to take me for a thorough physical, courtesy of the government, down to the eyes, ears, and teeth.

She was smiling, hopeful we'd appreciate a free medical visit, but Laura blew gently again, saying, I'll take care of it. We have a family doctor. Shouldn't my fitness as a parent be a concern?

Laura wasn't being conceited, only picturing us in a line of teenage mothers with babies on their hips sucking root beer out of blue plastic milk bottles. Sorry to say it but I filled out that scene in the bathroom. When I got back and saw Laura running my pencils through
a motorized sharpener, her tight method of movement and the way she dashed back her hair made her favor Ava Gardner, definite-edged in the midst of murky people, like in The Night of the Iguana when she's managing the old maid and the traveling women. The lady was fixated on Laura. She hadn't answered Laura yet, but she finally said, You can take her to the Mayo Clinic if you want to, and we know you're more than fit to take permanent custody of Ellen. How many pencils does she need?

More than she was led to believe, Laura told her, but since this is the last time, I'll let it be, and hope she'll be ready when I come for her. You know, it's Saturday.

She didn't say she was aggravated that the second test made us miss Willy Wonka and interrupted her plan to help catch me up on ordinary events by taking me to one childhood-type movie a month. She was aware of how when I was little, we stayed inside the house. The thought of heading out to the matinee movies or the family drive-in theater never arose due to different extremes. Now it was another thing available just to get up and go do. After American Bandstand, after the other two foster girls and I ate some sandwiches off the fold-out tables, we'd make the first afternoon showing and then walk around downtown, eating hot dogs and window shopping.

After the tests, Laura let me in the car, not all there, mumbling to me, And I'm even sorrier the downtown theater's switching over from Willy Wonka to Art Garfunkel, of all people, in something you can't see and I don't want to. We need another theater. Who here would buy a ticket to watch Art Garfunkel with his clothes off?

I said, It's okay about missing the movie. They'll probably bring it back on the summer daytime schedule next year.

But you'll be too old for it then, she said. I'm aware you already are, but I thought it was important. How do you think you did on the tests?

I told her fine but draining, so I probably would've passed out in the theater. She said, Well, it's worked out for the best I suppose. We've got ten miles of straight road home if you want to rest your head in my lap.

I was sore from tensing in a hard chair for so long and didn't feel like touching right then, but I didn't want her to take it as I was upset about the movie and do the kind of out of her way thing she was prone to do and suggest we follow it to the next town. I was also guilty from being relieved I didn't have to sit through Willy Wonka and come out jangled up after two hours of watching overly eager singers and have to fix my face
to say I'd just had a red-letter time of my life. Sweaty and sticky candy factory children hopping and singing around the chocolate vats, like they just happen to be living out the words to the songs, could irk you. I get more of a bang out of stories of realism that take pllace in the house or in the city, nothing on the open range, no forest or jungle except for Heart of Darkness, and except for Moby Dick, no man versus nature.

I was glad to feel her fingers on my hair though when I remembered the dark undersoul Willy Wonka had in the book and wondered if they'd allowed enough of him in the movie that you'd come out nervous about opening candy bars. People my age are old enough to know better, but I know some on my road, including myself, who're jubus about unwrapping a new cake of soap because of the nightmare possibility of seeing an innocent, trapped face staring up at you, permanently pressed there after a bad snatched hostage ordeal at Old Soap Molly's house. If you've lived a certain way and already have a lasting set of damages, you avoid what frightening fantasies you can.

It was only ten miles, but the weight of Laura's hand on my head and the tires underneath us knocked me out. I went straight to bed and just as I fell away, I was jerked back by the idea that the government was an expert at making you wait. I was facing another span of time I'd had to get to the other side of, not live wholly inside. After a month had passed, Laura called the Social Service lady, who said she couldn't help the backup, but remember the tests were only formalities. I wanted to shout and ask her if she'd ever needed permission to call her home a home or been jolted out of ease she'd trusted would come because the world couldn't possibly keep turning the wrong way. I pictured her arriving on the scene when I was too far past my ability to endure it and wreck what there was left of the life I'd reduced to reading with bleeding eyes and crawling to the supper table and crying on a pallet in the Easy Reader section of the library at school.

Copyright 2006 by Kaye Gibbons

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work
should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.


Excerpted from The Life All Around Me By Ellen Foster by Gibbons, Kaye Copyright © 2005 by Gibbons, Kaye. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 23, 2007

    Tossed the book

    I read a lot and this is the first time I threw a book out half read - not saving it to pass along along to friends and family. I found the language and long run on sentences irritating. The writing style alienated me from Ellen Foster whom I had remembered dearly from years before. I do have on my shelves several earlier works of Kaye Gibbons but I would label this book 'disappointing'.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 12, 2009

    Once again............

    I love to read. I love to escape into a book and forget about the present day world outside my door. So when authors these days insist on spilling their politics into their works of fictin I find it cheap and dirty. If you want to write about politics, write a political book. Do not sucker in your readers by hiding your rants and beliefs in the middle of a work of fiction. I find that sneaky, unprofesstional and weak. Kaye Gibbons, as much as I like your books, I will never buy another one.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2006

    It was worth the wait

    Kaye Gibbons has done an outstanding job with this sequel. Books hardly ever make me cry but Ellen's insight into her mother's past is one of the most poignant moments in the book. If you fell in love with Ellen in the first book, you'll surely fall in love all over again after reading this sequel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2005

    Ellen rules!

    Ellen Foster returns in as spirited, poignant and fiercely independent a voice as ever. With the base of a secure home 15 year old Ellen is able to feel the impact of her mother's suicide, observe class snippiness of the best and brightest at an educational camp and hang in there with her less gifted friends. A very welcome reappearance of one of the two best portraits of growing up in poverty (the other being Cynthia Rylant's Missing May) in decades.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2006

    May There Be Yet Another Sequel After This One!

    Ellen Foster is back in Kaye Gibbons' new novel and she's older, wiser, and as much fun as ever. It is always a joy to read an Ellen Foster book so I hope that this one will be followed by another. And the ending in this one is just plain fantastic! I will not say anything more since I do not wish to spoil it for other readers but it's one of the best endings I've ever read. And I live in a house with about 900 books, so that's saying something exceptionally good!

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    Posted September 22, 2014

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    Posted April 12, 2011

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