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.
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.
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!
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