Thursday, June 16, 2011

Review: Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Opening lines of the book:

“He clutches the worn slip of paper in his hand, trying to compare the letters written there to the red sign hanging on the door in front of him. Looking back and forth from the paper to the door several times, he is careful not to make a mistake.”

Why I read it:

It was selected by my book club and I was keen to read it because I had heard good things about it.

What it’s about:

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is the story of Kavita, an Indian woman who gives up her baby for adoption to save the child’s life; Somer, the white American woman who adopts the baby; and Asha, their daughter. The novel is mainly told from the points of view of these three characters, but several chapters also focus on the two Indian husbands as well as Somer’s mother-in-law.

What didn’t work:

I’m starting with what didn’t work for me because I had a hard time with this book—I probably would have abandoned it had it not been a book club read. I found the characters flat and the plot predictable; Gowda also spends too much time “telling” and not enough “showing,” so I rarely felt like I could sink into the story and forget I was reading.

Several passages actually made me angry, such as this one: “By the time she reaches the age of thirty-two, she will no longer have the ability to bear children, the one thing that defines her as a woman” (p. 32). This type of thinking pervades the sections about Somer and at no point is it presented as problematic.

Worse still was this passage: “Being a woman in India is an altogether different experience. You can’t always see the power women hold, but it is there, in the firm grasp of the matriarchs who still rule most families” (p. 59). I hate this type of author intrusion in a work of fiction—Gowda is clearly addressing the Western reader directly here—but this sweeping generalization made my blood boil since it’s so obviously untrue. Some women in India may “rule” their families, but given that this novel addresses the issue of female infanticide, this is a particularly outrageous claim to make.

What worked:

I was glad in the end that I got to discuss this novel with my book club because otherwise I might not have had much of anything positive to say about it. However, our discussion made me realize that Gowda handles the evolution of Kavita’s husband well: at the beginning of the story he is presented as a despicable character, but by the end I felt compassion for him despite some of the terrible choices he had made.

Final thoughts:

Despite being moved by the ending of this book, I can’t recommend it. However, I am very much in the minority on this one!

Recommended reviews:

alive on the shelvesLindy Reads and Reviews

Other reviews:

A Bookworm’s WorldA Mother’s TonicA Writer’s PenBooks in the CityCaribousmomIn the Next RoomKnitting and SundriesLibrary of Clean ReadsLife in the ThumbMommy’s ReadingMrs O’Dell ReadsNose in a BookRundpinneS. Krishna’s BooksThe Book ChickUnputdownablesWrite Meg


  1. Oh what the heck?! I hate it when books drive me crazy like this. You're better than me becuase I would not have finished it.

  2. So most of your book club enjoyed the book? I'll have to think about this one.

  3. Lots of people do seem to love it. I had a friend send me an email recommending it as a great book.

    But when I see stuff like this: “By the time she reaches the age of thirty-two, she will no longer have the ability to bear children, the one thing that defines her as a woman”, I think wrong and wrong. So, I don't know.

  4. Avis, you are not alone. I enjoyed this book and reviewed it positively although I did not like Somer too much. She irritated me. However, there were 4 in my book club who did not like it at all and would not have finished it if it were not a book club read.

  5. That kind of writing pulls me out of the story. It would bug me too.

  6. Just the quotes you put on here make me wonder if this one will work for me. I think your points are valid...wonder what I'll think of this one?

  7. Jenny, I find it hard to give up on books, although I'm getting better at it. Life's too short (and there are too many good books to read) to waste time reading bad books!

    Kathy, actually we were split down the middle on this one. Two of us didn't enjoy it and two loved it. I'll be curious to hear what you think, if you do decide to read it!

    Leslie, Somer was the character I had the most trouble with because of that type of stuff!

    Laura, thank you! I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one!

    Ti, yeah, it really didn't work for me, but lots of the reviews I've linked to say the exact opposite of what I said, that the writing was beautiful and they felt they were right there in the story...

    Staci, I'm curious to find out!

  8. Hey, you were right (in your comment on my blog) about us having a similar reading experience with this book! I'm curious how the other member in your book club who didn't like The Secret Daughter felt about To Say Nothing of the Dog at your previous meeting. I LOVE Connie Willis.

  9. awww, i'm sorry to hear that you didn't like this book. i'm all about character development and if the characters are flat then i usually don't like the book. what's the fun in reading a book with characters you don't care about?

  10. This will be interesting since I have this book to read for the summer. I'll go in armed with your thoughts and will keep expectations down.

    PS YAY for the Montreal Bloggers! The side bar mention of our Bonjour / Salut group brings a smile. Salut Montreal!

  11. What an interesting review Avis! I have this TBR and am not sure how I'll like it from your review. I appreciated your honesty and opinions. I've found that some of the most interesting discussions in my book club are of books that we don't all like.

  12. I really enjoyed your review. I completely loved this book. Reading your perspective was the opposite of my opinion. I can see where you are coming from, but I think I saw it more of a cultural thing. Great review!

  13. I have been meaning to get to this one. It does sound wonderful:)

  14. Nice to read your review of this one! I have to agree it was a disappointing read.

  15. Sounds like this one would infuriate me as well. It's good you had your book club to discuss it with.

  16. You are not alone! Your review really nailed the points that have been bothering me - I don't have kids and yet I still define myself as a woman! And it's hard for me to accept her comments about women ruling their families, when Somer is not even safe walking down the street in India.

    I also found it to be very unfair to American women. I know plenty of women who have kids and still manage to carry on an intelligent conversation, yet Somer seems to gain a daughter but lose her brain. I doubt I would finish this one if I wasn't committed to reviewing it. Thanks for speaking your mind on this one.

  17. Lindy, my book club didn't actually discuss To Say Nothing of the Dog because no one else could get through it! (None of them are SF readers, so it was admittedly a poor choice on my part.)

    toothybooks, flat characters are one of my top pet peeves in books. I have a higher tolerance for unlikely plots than for unbelievable characters.

    P.K. (Aisle Books), I'll be curious to hear what you think of this book. And I look forward to meeting you soon! (Yay Montreal Book Bloggers!)

    Bonnie, I definitely appreciated the discussion my book club had about this book. I hope you enjoy it more than I did!

    Jennifer (Mrs Q.), I find it interesting to read negative reviews of books I enjoyed because often I do see where the other person is coming from, but just don't happen to be bothered by whatever bothered them (or not to the same extent anyway). I'm glad that you had that experience with my review!

    I hope you enjoy it, Diane!

    I kinda felt bad that you'd read it, Brogan, since I think I inspired you to do so...

    Kathleen, yeah, I recommend you stay away from this one!

    Lisa, I loved your review (and have linked to it in mine as a "recommended review"). I hadn't thought about your point about Somer, but it's so true. Thanks for your great review!