Title: Secret Daughter
Author: Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Somer’s life is everything she imagined it would be—she’s newly married and has started her career as a physician in San Francisco—until she makes the devastating discovery she never will be able to have children.
The same year in India, a poor mother makes the heartbreaking choice to save her newborn daughter’s life by giving her away. It is a decision that will haunt Kavita for the rest of her life, and cause a ripple effect that travels across the world and back again.
Asha, adopted out of a Mumbai orphanage, is the child that binds the destinies of these two women. We follow both families, invisibly connected until Asha’s journey of self-discovery leads her back to India.”
Thoughts: While the synopsis states that the story is about the bond of motherhood, Secret Daughter is also a captivating look at life in India. In fact, of the two mothers, Kavita is the one who is the most sympathetic and leads the most intriguing lifestyle, if only because she leads a harsh life that is extremely foreign to those readers who are only familiar with the western world. The cultural differences, including the unusual birth rate statistics, are exposed in an intriguing and entirely realistic manner. In comparison, Somer’s life in southern California is insipid and tedious. The result is an uneven novel that shines brightly as the story unfolds on Indian soil but languishes in the sections that occur in the United States.
The contrast between East versus West is a deliberate plot point, but the jaggedness of the story in the two locations was unexpected. Somer is simply boring. As a representative of the West, she is frankly embarrassing with her struggles to balance her excellent career with motherhood, with her failure to accept her husband’s and daughter’s culture, and her blindness to her own faults. Kavita, on the other hand, is a study in poise and grace under extreme pressure. Her problems make Somer’s issues look downright trivial, and Kavita manages to outshine Somer because of her strength in the most trying circumstances. While Somer is trying to find contentment, Kavita is simply struggling to make ends meet. One just does not stand up to the other.
The unevenness of the story would hold up much better were Somer actually likable. Unfortunately, she is not. In addition to the huge difference in circumstances, Somer is plainly the opposite of Kavita in personality. Demanding and unforgiving, incapable of compromise and recognizing her own faults makes her a character that is tough to support. Combine that with a sense of superiority in certain areas and a sense of inferiority in others, and Somer is just as confusing and just as imbalanced as the two cultures. While a reader is supposed to sympathize with Somer’s issues as a mother, the reader is instead left with a sense of relief each time the story switches focus to Kavita or Asha.
Secret Daughter will make a great book club read, as there is much to discuss and much to contemplate. It is really a tale of contrasts. East versus West, mother versus mother, even the contrasts that make up India all combine to create a novel that produces similarly disparate reactions within one reader. Eventually, the differences do meld together, highlighting the overarching point that no one culture/person/method is better than another, and the story evens out appropriately. By stressing the differences, Ms. Gowda showcases how similar mothers are everywhere, regardless of the cultural, socioeconomic, religious, political, racial, and educational gaps. In the end, the story does become a beautifully written lesson on the importance of acceptance and sacrifice.
Thank you to Chelsey Emmelhainz from HarperCollins Publishing for my review copy!