Thursday, April 14, 2011

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Last night my book group discussed Secret Daughter, a book that's been on the bestseller lists since sometime last year. Most of the group had high praise for it, but two of us didn't care for it overly much. If it weren't for the discussion, I would have abandoned the book 50 pages in (my limit when I'm giving a book the benefit of doubt).

The basic premise is that Kavita Merchant takes her infant daughter (Usha) to an orphanage in Mumbai, rather than risk having her husband kill the baby, as happened with her first one, because the child is not a boy. Somer and Krishnan, a childless mixed-ethnic couple in San Francisco adopt Usha (now called Asha). When she is 20, Asha returns to Mumbai and lives for a year with her adoptive father's family, while also seeking information about her birth family.

I like the way the story shifts between Kavita's family and that of Asha's American family, but I didn't enjoy the emphasis on exposition, rather than action, to demonstrate character growth. For example: A few weeks after her arrival in India, Asha "chronicles the day's events in her journal. She is surprised by her own discovery that, although the food may be spicy, the clothes uncomfortable, and the beauty treatments painful, this place is starting to feel like home, and these people like family." There's little to support her shift in attitude, so a reader must rely on the author's assertion. Asha's mother in San Francisco, meanwhile, is also into self-discovery. Her revelations appear to arrive in her head already complete as she holds a yoga pose: "Always so eager to achieve the next milestone on her path, she has neglected to question that path or to look ahead." (Sermonize much?)

I'm similarly uncomfortable with Gowda's sweeping statements about motherhood. "If the mother falls, the whole family falls." and "In the midst of the poverty and despair of the slums, [Asha's film] showed the fierceness of a mother's love. And how we're really all the same in that way." The truth is that we are not all the same. Some mothers never bond with their offspring. There's also a kaleidoscope of family arrangements that are totally successful - without a mother.

So those are some of the reasons that I'm out of step with the majority of readers - all the ones who love Secret Daughter. Here are other titles about women's lives in India that I liked much better: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy; Tamarind Mem  by Anita Rau Badami; The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan; Babyji by Abha Dewasar; and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri.


alexis said...

My mom didn't like it either. She thought it was poorly written and only read it for book club.

avisannschild said...

I'm so glad I'm not the only one who didn't shower this book with praise! I just posted my review and it's along the same lines as yours. Some of this book actually made me angry (re: your second paragraph). Thank you for posting this!

Lindy said...

Avis, thanks for alerting me to your review. It's cool that we had similar experiences in reading this book.