Book Review: Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

09_27_2015_01Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Published 2010
339 Pages

Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3/5

This is one of those books that I see all the time at second hand book shops and pick up to read the blurb, then put back because, while I’m curious, I don’t feel like I would 100% enjoy it. It seems a bit too… mushy. I love the idea of a Canadian female author whose parents are from India (right up my alley, yes?) writing a story that incorporates gendered politics and cultural acceptance, but a book about a mother-daughter bond? Ehhhhhh… I’m probably in the minority here, but I dislike reading about women who become mothers like it’s their only reason for existence. I had a very aggressive reaction to the female protagonist in The Memory Keeper’s Daughter when she just wouldn’t shut up about the twin that she thought had died during childbirth. It remains to this day the only book I have literally thrown across a room in frustration. Am I uncaring? Probably a little. Do I think there is more to a woman’s life than motherhood? Yes. Do I find myself unable to connect emotionally with the women in these types of stories? Totally, but that’s on me as producing babies has never been high on my to-do list. All that aside, I sort of surprised myself by liking this book! 

I found myself at work one weekend (in a Women’s housing facility) without a book to read. I browsed the shelves of donated books and this one popped up again, so I decided to give it a go, even if just as speed-read weekend material before I could get back to my towering to-read pile at home.

I liked that Secret Daughter covered two different types of culture and the experiences of women with regards to mothering. Kavita is a woman in rural India who gives birth to a daughter and, in order to protect the baby from being murdered by her husband because she is female, secretly takes her to an orphanage mere days after her birth so she may have a better chance at life. India is a nation (along with China) that continues to culturally favour sons over daughters and have utilized ultrasound technology to perform sex-selective abortions in order to eliminate the birth of unwanted daughters and gain more sons. I won’t get into/rant about this here, but will instead direct you to the eye-opening and fantastically written and researched book The Means of Reproduction by Michelle Goldberg. She speaks about this topic at length.

On the other side of the world we have Somer, an American doctor married to an Indian man (also a doctor), who is desperate for a baby of her own. Somer and Krishnan discover they are infertile and turn to adoption to realize their dreams of parenthood. Because Krishnan is from India he suggests adopting from an Indian orphanage, and they travel there to adopt Usha, the baby Kavita gave up.

I have to say that Somer is one of the most unbearable and beefheaded characters I have read about in a long, long time. I absolutely despised her. She adopts a baby from another nation, a nation where her husband was born and raised, no less, but still manages to be completely and totally ignorant and obnoxious when it comes to Indian culture. She acts like an utter diva about the living conditions when visiting her husband’s family, buys street meat and stores it in their strictly vegetarian fridge causing everyone to freak out then acting like an oblivious deer in the headlights when she is told it was a highly offensive thing to do, then essentially says she is never going back because she hates India. She brings baby Usha home then completely denies her access to any of her cultural heritage by refusing to educate her or even take her to meet her grandparents and extended family. If you want a lesson in what NOT to do when adopting Internationally, this is the handbook. Usha grows up resenting the crap out of Somer and Somer continues to act with entitlement and gross insensitivity. They lack any kind of perceivable bond as Somer seems to still be pining over the biological child she could never have and alienating Usha in the process. I failed to feel any sympathy for Somer at any stage in this novel.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda really made me hate this woman, whether that was her intention or not – it could quite possibly have been intended as a dig at obnoxious first-class White people in America – and for that I give her kudos (the making me hate Somer, not for her potentially deliberate mocking of WASPers). The writing was fairly strong and the development of the characters was good. Sure, Somer was a total dickhead, but a well-written dickhead! I’ve read reviews from people who claimed to have been sobbing over the pages of this book until they had a sodden mess of pulp in their hands, but I didn’t connect the same way. Overall I enjoyed it, but it didn’t pull on my heart strings and I’m fully able to admit that is due to my own yo-yo-ing feelings on children and motherhood. As someone who has seriously considered International adoption, however, I enjoyed the lesson taught by this book that removing a child from their country of origin does not give you the right to deny them knowledge of where they came from, no matter how great a life you provide. CULTURAL COMPETENCY, PEOPLE.

Recommended for: Anyone who wants a good cry, or is thinking of adopting Internationally.


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