Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Book description~ On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a baby girl. But in a culture that favors sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter’s life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son. Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband, Krishnan, see a photo of the baby with the gold-flecked eyes from a Mumbai orphanage, they are overwhelmed with emotion. Somer knows life will change with the adoption but is convinced that the love they already feel will overcome all obstacles. Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the child that binds both of their destinies, “Secret Daughter” poignantly explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity, and love, as witnessed through the lives of two families – one Indian, one American – and the child that indelibly connects them.
Gowda’s debut novel, Secret Daughter, follows both The Merchants, Indian family in Bombay and The Thakkars, a blended Indian-American family in California, spanning 25 years of global struggle. Both families’ struggles are so different yet as I read on, became so intertwined they paralleled one another. The shear THOUGHT of Kavita Merchant having to give up her daughter, Usha, because the poverty-stricken India in the 80s favored sons, made me sick to my stomach yet intrigued me at the same time. The bond a woman shares with her unborn child she nurtures in her body for almost an entire year is an intense one unlike anything else. I can’t imagine what Kavita went through. Then, Kavita struggled through the ‘unspeakable’ with her first baby girl, before Usha, and a tough first trimester with her third pregnancy waiting to find out the gender ultimately learning she was carrying a boy she could keep. We also follow Somer Thakkar, an American doctor who is married to an Indian man. They try and try but cannot have children. They decide to adopt and, as you can guess, end up adopting Kavita’s daughter, Usha, unbeknownst to Kavita. The older Usha gets, the more and more she seeks answers and acceptance. Usha never quite felt bonded to Somer- she longed to know about her biological family and never felt like Somer embraced the Indian side of their culture. Usha found it easier to assimilate with her Indian classmates because they taught her more about her own culture than her parents did. It made her seek out an opportunity to go overseas even more as she grew up and matured. The turning point in the book happened when Usha earns a journalism fellowship in India for an academic year. Usha is excited for the possibility of finding her birth parents but finds much more along the way. Somer realizes the err of her ways and hopes to patch things up with Usha before it’s too late… I won’t give away the details of what happens next so you’ll have to pick up this book and find out. Gowda does such a great job artfully developing the rising action, wrapping things up with a fantastic ending.
Secret Daughter is a thought-provoking and emotional read spanning decades, cultural identity, redemption, and women’s roles. Having read this book the week of Mother’s Day, I felt for Somer who so desperately wanted a connection with Asha, but it just wasn’t time yet. It made me think about how tough the “teenage years” were on our parents, how tough it was for them to see us growing up and changing before their eyes while struggling for independence and acceptance to make a life for ourselves as young adults, and how tough it was for us to carve our own place in this world. This book made me appreciate my mom and the new friendship we’ve cultivated over my adult years.
I enjoyed learning about the Indian culture and family ideologies. It makes me realize how much the American culture lacks. My one criticism and a big roadblock that prevented me from truly committing to the characters and plotline– Gowda overused Gujarati words, terms and slang phrases without defining them in English. I could only interrupt my reading so many times to grab my phone and google the foreign words before it became too laborious and disruptive. I felt like an outsider at times, whereas the reader should be let into the curious worlds of each character as their story is told. I often feel a bit removed when I read books written in third person narrative but hoped for more out of this book. Only when I finished the book did I come across the Gujarati glossary of terms on the last page…ok, seriously? I’m not rereading this book! I felt like Gowda could have annotated the first page, or given us a forward to share the glossary’s location. What good is the glossary at the end when I don’t know it’s there?! I bet if Gowda had bloggers to read this book before it went to print, she would have gotten similar feedback to either put the glossary first or at least let us know it exists! All in all, I definitely recommend you read this book, and when you do, please be aware of the glossary BEFORE you begin your reading so you’re not in dark like I was 🙂 I finished this book feeling satisfied with a contented grin.
25 down, 27 to go!
In progress, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt