Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Review: Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Two families continents apart connected by one girl, this novel, set in India and the US and tackling adoption, infertility, identity, self, and the definition of family was a compelling read. It opens with the birth of a baby girl whose mother must make the terrible decision to abandon her at an orphanage in the city if she wants her baby to live. Girls are not valued in their small village, as evidenced by the fact that the first baby girl born to Kavita and Jasu was killed soon after her birth. But Kavita will do everything in her power to make sure that tiny Usha (meaning dawn) survives. Half a world away in San Francisco, pediatrician Somer suffers yet another miscarriage, ultimately discovering the devastating news that she and husband Krishnan won't be able to have children. After much deliberation, they decide to adopt and specifically to adopt from Krishnan's home country, India. The adorable little girl who becomes their daughter is Asha (meaning hope) a misreading of her original given name, Usha

As Somer works through the grief of learning she'll never have a biological child and comes to the idea of adoption, Kavita learns that she is pregnant again but this time, thanks to the wonders of ultrasound, with a boy who she will be able to keep and to love even as she still loves her two lost daughters. The novel alternates between California and India, concerned with Asha's privileged life in the US and Kavita and Jasu's life of striving in Bombay, where they moved to try and better their lot. The contrasts between the experiences of the two mothers, Somer and Kavita, and their concerns for their children are stark but they are also bound by similarities common to all mothers.

This is not only a book about mothers and daughters but about belonging and the ways in which the heart is indelibly bound both through blood and through love. Asha questions who she is, the daughter of a white woman and an Indian man but adopted and fully Indian herself. She struggles with her cultural identity alongside the many unanswered questions that face adoptees with little to no information on their birth families.

Kavita never recovers from losing Usha and so she wraps her whole being into raising her son, Vijay all the while keeping the shadow of her baby daughter tucked away, hidden. As Kavita and Jasu raise their precious son, they exhaust themselves to try and make a better life, slowly pulling themselves up from desperate poverty, centimeter by agonizing centimeter. Gowda has definitely drawn a vivid and heartbreaking portrait of the struggle for life in Bombay's slums.

Motherhood and what we owe our mothers looms large here. The complex ways in which daughters and mothers interact, the ways they hurt one another, and the ways they hold each other close are very important. Somer loved and raised Asha. She is clearly Asha's mother. But Kavita too is Asha's mother, having loved her enough to save her life. And it is the not knowing this second mother or her love that drives Asha's college life, her quest for an identity as defined through both of her mothers.

The stories are gripping and the female characters complex and interesting. Each one grapples with such different demons that the reader is in sympathy with all three women, Somer, Kavita, and Asha as they face the hand that life dealt them and forge ahead, always tied by sometimes invisible threads. For readers who have an interest in the long term effects of international adoption, those who enjoy mother daughter stories, and those who have a yen to read about the complex and fascinating reality of life in India, this will fit the bill perfectly. It's strong, heartbreaking, and well written, a definite page turner.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to read via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.


  1. I'm on the waiting list for this one at my library and can't wait to read it! I'm so glad that you enjoyed it.

  2. I got this one through LT too and need to read it - it sounds great!


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